Even if you don’t know a thing about the stock market, you almost certainly know the name Bernie Madoff. Long considered one of the most brilliant and respected investment advisers in the game, in 2008 Madoff’s mystique came crashing down after the FBI arrested him for securities fraud. Madoff confessed to using his company to run an elaborate Ponzi scheme for decades. With the snap of federal handcuffs around Madoff’s wrists, thousands of investors watched their life savings vanish and Madoff became an instantaneous icon of Wall Street greed and deception.
It’s an unbelievable story, both in terms of the sheer amount of money defrauded—billions, with a “b”—and the fact that it went on for so long without being detected. HBO’s new original film, The Wizard of Lies, casts Robert De Niro as Madoff, in a tale based on former New York Times journalist Diana B. Henriques’ 2011 book of the same name. Directed by Barry Levinson and premiering Saturday, The Wizard of Lies examines the cost of Madoff’s crimes paid by those closest to him — the family his choices imperiled and destroyed.
Scripted by Sam Levinson, Sam Baum, and John Burnham Schwartz, The Wizard of Lies opens with Madoff already behind bars, serving a 150-year sentence that will most assuredly guarantee he will die in prison. The narrative takes the form of a frame story, with Madoff being interviewed by Henriques. From there, the script jumps back to the day Madoff confessed to his family that he’d defrauded his investors of billions, his arrest after his sons reported him to the FBI, and then back to happier times. But even in these happier times, the cracks can be seen. Madoff, for all his apparent devotion to family, lies to them with the ease of breathing, and every lie places them squarely in the crosshairs of danger they couldn’t possibly see coming.
Both De Niro and Michelle Pfeiffer vanish into their roles as Madoff and his wife, Ruth, respectively—and thankfully, the film only asks you to empathize with one of them. They say no one ever thinks they’re the villain of the story, and that’s certainly the case with De Niro’s Madoff. Although he repeats the phrase “I take full responsibility” several times throughout the story, Madoff never seems to truly do so, or even to fully understand how much damage he has done to people’s lives, including those of his own family. He’s forever trying to downplay the risk he put his family at, or trying to pass some of the blame onto his clients’ own greed. That’s a tricky thing to play as an actor—someone who’s professing regret but not actually feeling it, not really—and De Niro sells it admirably. By the time Madoff asks Henriques if she thinks he’s a sociopath, the answer should be very clear, thanks in part to De Niro’s performance.
Pfeiffer’s role is equally tricky, but for different reasons. Ruth did nothing wrong beyond loving a terrible human being, and being deceived by him as thoroughly as he swindled his marks. But how do you leave a partner who’s been your entire life for five decades? Pfeiffer brings the perfect balance of frustration, heartbreak, weariness, and resignation to the role. You’ll want her to make different choices, but you’ll also understand the conflict that stays her hand.
The rest of the cast is also solid, including Alessandro Nivola and Nathan Darrow as Mark and Andrew Madoff, two loyal sons watching their hallowed vision of their father unravel right in front of them. Hank Azaria gets to chew the scenery as Frank DiPascali, Madoff’s shady business partner, Frank DiPascali.
If there’s one glaring problem with The Wizard of Lies, it’s that you can feel the length as it nears its end. The film is never boring, but by the time the end credits are rolling, some viewers may feel like they’ve sat through Peter Jackson’s multiple Return of the Kings endings all over again.
The film also may leave some wishing it had delved into the bones of Madoff’s decades-long Ponzi scheme. We get the general sense of how it worked, and we see various moments when it threatened to come crashing down over the years, but we never really get a sense of how Madoff managed to delay the collapse as long as he did. Asking “how did he get away with it?” could easily fuel an entire separate movie, but The Wizard of Lies chooses instead to tell Madoff’s story mostly through the lens of how his transgressions affected his family. That’s a valid choice, and, for the most part, it works.