Levinson: The Wizard of Lies (2017)
The Wizard of Lies is the third televisual treatment of Bernie Madoff’s record-breaking Ponzi Scheme, which saw him commit a fraud somewhere in the realm of 65 billion dollars over a period of at least thirty years, culminating with his arrest during the height of the Global Financial Crisis in 2008, at which point it became clear that he hadn’t made a single trade in over a decade. Described by Bill Maher as “the worst pyramid scheme since the actual pyramids,” the event came to stand both for the devolution of American financial confidence from the late 1980s to the late 2000s, as well as a point of continuity between the GFC and the 1987 Black Friday crash, which was apparently when Madoff’s scheme really began in earnest, as much as he might have laid the groundwork decades before. In the popular imagination, then, Madoff’s crime culminated the gradual downturn of the American economy that started in 1987, a perception that both previous treatments of the events of the crime espoused in their very different ways. The first of these took shape as the third season of the FX series Damages, which was released in early 2010, and was the closest to the original events, perhaps explaining why it restorts to a more speculative and fictionalised version of the Madoff family. By 2016, there was enough critical distance for a more specific treatment of the events, resulting in the ABC miniseries Madoff, in which Richard Dreyfuss played the titular character, in an examination of the days and weeks leading up to Madoff’s incarceration, along with his financial strategies, outlook and ethos.
Released the following year, The Wizard of Lies shares many features with its two precedessors – enough for them to almost constitute a sustained and ongoing body of work – but is much more preoccupied with the ongoing aftermath than either, reflecting an American media environment in which the long shadow of the GFC has manifested itself in more dramatic and intrusive ways over the decade since the first disruptions of the market occurred. For that reason, The Wizard of Lies is more concerned with the aftermath of the crime, and anchored several years after Madoff’s incarceration, via the iconic interview between him and journalist Diana B. Henriques that took place in 2011, one year after Madoff’s son Mark had committed suicide, three years before Madoff’s other son Andrew would pass away from cancer, and in the midst of Ruth Madoff’s gradual process of entirely dissociating herself from her husband after being bankrupted and moving to Boca Raton to live with her sister, who was one of the many victims of the scheme. The fact that Henriques plays herself adds a forensic authenticity to the film that eventually dismantles even the most residual fantasies that Madoff has of himself, but throughout the opening scenes the rest of the world, and the impacts of his crimes, are largely removed from the film’s purview, as we start with a sequestered and self-contained portrait of Madoff as he tries to explain his crimes, explain himself, and explain his impact upon Americans, to Henriques.
It’s clear, during these scenes, that Madoff was one of the most well-spoken criminals in American history, as he promulgates a persona that is consistently rational, meditative and remorseful. Explaining to Henriques that the crime wasn’t “malicious” and that it was “something I thought I would manage to work my way out of,” he cycles through every trope that Hollywood has in its arsenal for exonerating white-collar crime, invoking the sanctity of family above all else, the fear of failure in an economy driven by success and, finally, his need to look after of his staff and employees, culminating with his effort to pay out their bonuses on the day before he was apprehended in order to “take care of everyone.” Across these opening sequences, it’s hard, initially, not to be somewhat impressed by Madoff’s dignity and courage under fire, especially since the rest of his family are in utter disarray, with Michelle Pfeiffer, Alessandro Nivola and Nathan Darrow putting in a terrific trio of performances as Ruth, Mark and Andrew respectively, along with a cameo from Hank Azaria as Frank Di Pascali, who as Madoff’s CFO and one of the few people indubitably in on the scheme, was just as much Madoff family, albeit in a very different way.
As the film proceeds, however, that charismatic assurance is gradually eroded, starting with a series of vibrant, vivid and energetic flashbacks to the years before Madoff was caught. At one level, these sequences work to restore the charisma that Hollywood typically attaches to Wall Street brokers, especially evil Wall Street brokers, gravitating Madoff towards the kind of film it might have been if it was concocted twenty years ago. Yet in the very process of periodising that orientation towards Wall Street the film makes it clear that this charisma is also synonymous with all the violence, entitlement and decades of crime that has been subsumed into the modesty topos that Madoff performs in the present. For all his studied humility in the interview with Henriques, these flashbacks suggest that he lived as an absolute dictator in his private and professional lives, even as he coated his most abrasive and antisocial behavior in precisely the same mildness and unobtrusiveness that he tries to broker as an affective asset once he’s arraigned. The fact that these flashbacks are so entertaining, and designed to be entertaining, therefore places the audience in a dissonant position, confronting them with their most residual charismatic expectations of a Wall Street villain only to reveal the financial privilege required for that charisma to even exist.
Indeed, so charismatic is De Niro in these flashbacks, that the film has to make a particularly pointed and programmatic effort to deconstruct that charisma in the present, resulting in what may well be the most unflinching film of Levinson’s entire career, to the point where this often feels like a reckoning on Levinson’s part as much as anything else, and a contemplation of how his brand of sentimental machismo looks from the perspective of a new century. First and foremost, that means demystifying Madoff’s manner of speech throughout this interview, which perpetually constellates around a series of aphorisms, and an aphoristic style, in which he delivers one nugget of insight after another: “Now I think about it, my greatest failure, or perhaps my greatest weakness, is that I wanted to please people.” Whereas an older kind of film might have attached some import to these observations, or even indulged in Madoff as a figure of transgressive insight, these one-liners persistently fall flat in The Wizard of Lies, divesting Madoff of any grand criminal sensibility or philosophy in the process. As much as he might try to fall back upon an outlier status by inisisting “this isn’t about me – this country needs a villain,” it’s pretty clear that he embodied Wall Street at its most rapacious and ruthless. Far from his charisma granting him some kind of noble exceptionality in the present, then it was simply the main mechanism he used to prevent investigators knocking at his door for three or four decades.
That functional, pragmatic and banal orientation to Madoff’s criminal charisma opens the door for a more sustained depiction of the impact and victims of his crime than either of the two adaptations. To that end, and in quite an extraordinary figurative gesture, the film presents the Ponzi Scheme as analogous to 9/11 in its catastrophic impact on the United States economy, both pragmatically and ideologically, joining the FX series Billions as part of a growing fascination, in American media, in tracing the activites of all the financiers who weren’t in the Twin Towers on that day. As it turns out, Madoff was trading as usual, working through the entire day and – the film suggests – drawing upon its energy much as he drew upon the energy of Black Friday at a more formative moment in his scheme. To that figurative gesture Levinson adds a more documentary attention to the testimony of the victims, from a sustained montage sequence to a harrowing scene at the end of Madoff’s hearing, but even these more non-fictional moments partake of the atmosphere of 9/11, as well as the style of news broadcasts that put faces to the anonymous victims of terrorism.
No surprise, then, that the film simply can’t summon up the energy to present Madoff’s story as a splendid or charismatic decline. By extension, The Wizard of Lies simply can’t convincingly present this as a tragedy for the Madoff family, or the Madoff sons, whose efforts to process it all are persistently presented as bathetic and even quasi-comic in their supreme detachment from the actual lived experiences of the victims their father defrauded. It’s at these moments that Levinson really draws upon the more televisual possibilities of the film, suffusing some of the most ostensibly pathos-laden sequences with a frank, procedural and banal Law and Order kind of register that is utterly disinterested in the way in which Madoff’s family have lost the “awe” that they previously held for him. Even Madoff’s own entitlement and nastiness partakes of this same banality, whether directed at his wife or his eight-year-old granddaughter, just as the film simply can’t invest any pathetic energy in the violations of the Madoff family itself, with even the suit raised against his four-year-old grand-daughter matter-of-factly seen as just another inevitable consequence of the fraud he perpetrated against them, as much as against his investors.
To some extent, that disinterest in the plights of the family were also a hallmark of the third season of Damages and the ABC miniseries Madoff. What makes The Wizard of Lies so striking is that it is quite open about acknowledging that the events were utterly destructive for the Madoff family as well, with Ruth bankrupted and forced to move to Boca Raton, Mark committing suicide shortly after, and then Andrew passing away from cancer several years after that. By frankly presenting that tragic outcome but refraining from imbuing the family with tragic dignity, the film comes to a remarkably harrowing and sombre finale in which the entire family unit is dismantled and dissociated as clinically and functionally as Madoff himself dismantled and discarded the lives of his victims. While you wouldn’t want to say that the family suffered like Madoff’s victims, the cumulative presence of those victims becomes unavoidable within their own affective and interpersonal exchanges, to the point where the family simply ceases to function, and the Madoff name disintegrates overnight, but without receiving any affective recompense or rehabilitation by the film either, which grows even steelier and more disinterested in these concluding sequences. As with Madoff, the result is certainly darkly comic at times, but there’s a somberness beneath the comedy that makes for quite a dissonant and disturbing viewing experience, culminating with the picaresque depiction of Bernie and Ruth’s aborted suicide attempt at their home.
While the family may never reach the heights of tragedy, they are therefore suffused with the finitude of their victims, with Ruth eventually deciding that she needs to stop seeing Madoff, and refusing to even take his call after Andrew passes away, observing that “I don’t really see much of a future for me, and I don’t really care if I have one…the future’s hard.” More generally, that sense of finitude seems to signal the end of a certain kind of widescreen New York narrative as much as anything else. While three versions of this story have been adapted, it’s notable that they’ve all been televisual, and that even their most cinematic moments have been reined in by a more televisual sense of space and pace, as if some kind of essential cinematic conception of New York had been disrupted by the events of Madoff’s life. While it can be phrased in different ways, that grand narrative makes most sense to me in terms of the second-generation criminal narratives that proliferated throughout American cinema in the 1930s, and then in New Hollywood – stories that focused on characters who were forced to hustle and strategise their way around New York, but who graduated into a kind of upscale, operatic, masculinist gangster-professional in the process. No doubt, these were nearly always decline narratives, but their very decline was seen as a signal of glory, as if the most America could offer was a glorious defeat, in a way that is simply untenable in The Wizard of Lies. Of course, these narratives were also a mythological substrate for the Baby Boomers, both in their 1930s and 1970s incarnation (and then, finally, in their 1990s incarnation), so it makes sense that Levinson’s film is peppered with Baby Boomer anthems as well, from “Sweet Caroline” to “House of the Rising Sun,” as if the 1960s, and its promises, finally ended on the day Madoff was caught.
Yet by presenting financial fraud as the logical endpoint of the gangster-professional, The Wizard of Lies not only decimates a certain kind of New York protagonist, but a certain kind of New York family drama – especially those revolving around the idea of a “family” as a quasi-criminal, quasi-revolutionary impulse. From Little Caesar to Goodfellas, this broader idea of family was often used to frame a point of resistance to the strictures of the state, as well as an encapsulation of the colloquial, collegial know-how that can make Americans so adept, at times, to perceiving the disingenuities that drive power structure and institutions. All the films that The Wizard of Lies draws upon are invested in this idea of family, and yet in Levinson’s vision the family is the system, removing family itself from even the most residual claim as a conceptual anchor to social protest or progression. Hence the utter and categorical dismantling of the Madoff family, which comes closer than any other recent film I’ve seen to eviscerating the family unit, more generally, as a cinematic topos, as well as divesting Madoff himself of even the most residual recourse to “family,” in its broadest sense, as a part of his motivation. By the stunning conclusion, that has forced Levinson to also reject the broader tendency to dissociate white collar crime from criminal psychology, resulting in a final scene in which Henriques raises comparisons made between Madoff to Bundy, and he returns with the question that ends the film: “Do you think I’m a sociopath?”
Again, in another kind of film, that final question might have testified to Madoff’s playful and provocative ability to play the system on its own terms, but here it feels like the last of his empty aphorisms, all of which raise “questions” whose answers are already clear from the outset. That sense of escalating charismatic impotence produces what must be one of the best and most understated latter-day performances from De Niro, just because it can’t depend on his residual charisma in any straightforward way. While that’s clear in the flashbacks, it’s especially evident in these interview sequences, in which both Madoff and De Niro almost maintain a seamless, “actorly” front, but allow small moments of hesitation and doubt to transpire as well, as if no longer quite sure what it means to play “Madoff” and “De Niro” in this day and age. Given De Niro’s centrality to cinematic maschismo and masculine charisma over the last half-century, the effect is of witnessing De Niro himself contemplating the way in which his own screen image ramifies against a cinematic, or televisual, environment that it helped create, but that may have exceeded it. In many ways, Martin Scorsese’s The Irishman seems to address that query too, casting De Niro in the first Scorsese picture that will never ever see a big screen, but also digitally recreating him at various younger ages to compensate for that dissociation of cinematic charisma as well, as if in a kind of remediated version of his sepia flashback sequences in The Godfather Part II.
Yet The Wizard of Lies offers a very different solution, finally presenting Madoff as a figure who disrupts De Niro’s own position within American cinema as much as he disrupts the representation of Wall Street on the big screen – or the identification of Wall Street with the big screen. In the most expressionist and dissonant moment of the film – his unsuccessful suicide attempt with Ruth – Madoff, or De Niro – it doesn’t matter which now – wanders out into his living room. There, he encounters a stylised, hallucinatory, intensified tableau of his sons sitting in expectation, in an image that both encapsulates and culminates the stylised masculinity that constitutes De Niro’s own career. At the same time, however, that sense of gravity is offset by the fact that Meet Me in St. Louis is playing on the television, and as this gay classic percolates out across this tableau of masculinist angst, it feels as if De Niro is coming face to face with some fundamental devolution of the masculinist signifier, and the male gaze, of cinema itself, culminating with both images – his sons and Judy Garland – collapsing into a glitchy broadcast of Black Monday 1987, now somehow projected into the present. In that sequence lies one of the most extraordinary depictions of the GFC as both a financial and cinematic phenomenon, even or especially as it required a telemovie to achieve it, along with the most vulnerable and compelling moment of this later part of De Niro’s career, as well as one of the most defining moments of his career in toto.
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