In today’s divisive political climate where the line between “alt facts” and actual facts has been obliterated, it’s not surprising that Robert De Niro, an outspoken critic of the “alt fact” administration, has made his HBO debut as executive producer and star of a film entitled The Wizard of Lies. The film’s infamous protagonist, Bernie Madoff, now serving a 150-year sentence in prison, was a highly respected mover and shaker in the world of finance who built his reputation on a massive web of lies fueled by his bloodless and, many would agree, sociopathic personality disorder.
The Wizard of Lies, directed by Academy Award® winner Barry Levinson, makes a strong case for the moral of the story: nothing good comes from lies and those who disseminate them. The film debuts on HBO tonight, Saturday, May 20, 2017, 8:00 – 10:15 p.m. ET/PT. (Check listings for additional HBO playdates in the weeks ahead and availability on HBO NOW, HBO GO and HBO On Demand and affiliate portals.)
The Wizard of Lies follows the downward spiral of Ponzi schemer Bernie Madoff during the days leading up to the crash of his bogus $50 billion empire and the detritus he left behind for his victims: his investors and those guilty by association…his staffers and most especially his wife and sons. The screenplay, primarily adapted from New York Times reporter Diana B. Henriques’ book of the same name, smartly frames the Madoff debacle with re-creations of Henriques’ jail house interviews with Madoff. The interviews were hard-won by Henriques, who effectively plays herself in the film. Her professional, no-nonsense face-to-face offs with Madoff add documentary flavor to the film.
Without delving into the complex how-tos of Madoff’s swindle, the film lays the groundwork for his endgame, his high-profile arrest and the collateral damage that ensued, especially as it impacted his family. As the stock market tumbled in 2008 and his nervous investors began draining his faux coffers, he scrambled to pay them off with money he charmed out of new high rollers who were flattered by his 11th hour invitation to join his rarefied stable of investors in what he promised would be a rebounding market.
“People would think it was an honor for him to take your money,” said De Niro. “That’s a classic con situation… he was in that position and he used it.”
Fine performances by Robert De Niro as Bernie Madoff and especially Michelle Pfeiffer, as Madoff’s loyal spouse Ruth, drive this film exploration of the scandal that played out like a Shakespearean tragedy. His arrest in 2008 for perpetuating what has been called “the largest financial fraud in U.S. history” was followed by a fire-storm of incriminations from his desperate investors. A media circus culminated with Bernie’s trial and incarceration.
As Bernie Madoff’s house of cards came tumbling down, so did his family. Shown here to have been deliberately sheltered from Bernie’s longtime con, Ruth and their sons, Mark (Alessandro Nivola) and Andrew (Nathan Darrow), and their young families were demoralized by the accusations swirling around them in the media and their ostracism by longtime friends and family members. Shocked and bewildered by her husband’s betrayal, Ruth questioned her own possible unwitting role in the scam and struggled to maintain equilibrium as her elitist lifestyle and family disintegrated. Michelle Pfeiffer’s outstanding performance taps into Ruth’s vulnerability as a dutiful wife and mother of a certain age, whose definitions of love and trust were determined when, as a young teenager, she met and fell under the spell of lifeguard Bernie Madoff.
“Bernie’s con never sounded too good to be true, ”recalled journalist Diana Henriques. “One of my favorite lines is ‘if it sounds too good to be true, you’re dealing with an amateur.’ Bernie never did that. What you need to understand is how plausible con men like this are, how utterly they can seize your trust and your imagination and make you believe.”
The Wizard of Lies is not only a well-acted and directed reenactment of the Bernie Madoff scandal, but a timely reminder that we would do well to learn from Bernie Madoff’s tragic example… that the endgame for those who promote and accept lies as fact is never a good one.
The Wizard of Lies debuts on HBO tonight, Saturday, May 20, 2017, 8:00 – 10:15 p.m. ET/PT. (Check listings for additional HBO playdates in the weeks ahead and availability on HBO NOW, HBO GO and HBO On Demand and affiliate portals.) –Judith Trojan