Perhaps the most surprising shot in Jeff Prosserman’s “Chasing Madoff” is of Bernard Madoff himself. The silver-haired financial “wizard” lounges in a chair, amusing the surrounding crowd with his observations on the fallacies of the financial markets.
He’s funny, confident, and charming; why would anyone doubt him? Then we see Harry Markopolos, earnest and awkward and self-righteous, repeat yet again that he warned the Securities and Exchange Commission 10 years before Madoff’s final fall that the hedge-fund manager was a crook, that his astonishing returns were a fantasy, that Bernie Madoff was running the largest and longest-lasting Ponzi scheme ever.
Film ReviewIt may be as simple as that: Madoff’s cool quotient is so much higher than Markopolos’ that no one wanted to spend much time with the geekier guy and look at his charts and spreadsheets. They wanted to hang with the handsome financier wearing the expensive suits, the guy who seemed to have the secret to success.
I wish Prosserman, who wrote, produced, and directed this documentary film based on Markopolos’s book “No One Would Listen,” had taken a step back and considered the difference in style between the two men. But we can’t complain that a filmmaker didn’t make a different movie; we have to judge what was done. “Chasing Madoff” is a tedious, repetitive film that won’t reveal much new to anyone who followed the Madoff case in the newspapers except the extent of Markopolos’s self-aggrandizement and obsession. Filled with re-enactments, cheesy effects, and endless interviews with Markopolos and his much sleeker partner Frank Casey, “Chasing Madoff” has the feel of a vanity production. There are too many irrelevant scenes of Markopolos’s parents, children, Catholic high school, and small town home in Massachusetts to make sense, otherwise. Do we really need to see Harry taking his sons for a walk in the woods, talking to them about predators and prey? That touching scene might be appropriate for a retirement party or a donors’ gala, but “Chasing Madoff” is supposedly a serious nonfiction film.
When Harry Markopolos was a derivatives portfolio manager at Ramparts Investment Management, his boss asked him to match the returns of renowned options trader Bernie Madoff. Madoff was rumored to have some secret formula that never lost money. After running the numbers, Markopolos came to the conclusion that Madoff had to be a fraud – no one never lost money in the equities market. It was impossible. Markopolos eventually took his findings to the SEC, the government agency that is supposed to protect the integrity of the financial markets. The SEC began several investigations, but they never came to anything. Why not? Maybe the SEC lawyers thought that Markopolos was less than a disinterested party. Maybe Madoff bought them off in one way or another. One of the lead SEC attorneys married Madoff’s niece, after all. Maybe they were incompetent or distracted. Maybe they thought Markopolos was just too weird to take seriously. Or, and this is the film’s implication, maybe Madoff and his cronies threatened their lives and the safety of their families, and they were too frightened to do anything.
Markopolos certainly felt threatened. The film re-enacts his buying guns, getting a carry license from his local police force, being fitted for a bulletproof vest, checking for bombs under the family car, and loading pistols and shotguns. He discusses his military service and goes to target practice. All the hints of potential criminal violence are there – clips from old mob hits, shots of Al Capone, blood spreading ominously across papers. The only thing that’s missing is evidence. Prosserman doesn’t interview any of the SEC lawyers or tell us why the cases didn’t go forward. Instead, we have long, highly entertaining scenes of Rep. Gary Ackerman (D-N.Y.) loudly abusing a panel of shaken SEC employees. This is fun to watch, for sure, but doesn’t really tell us anything specific.
Markopolos brought his claims to the financial press too, and even though a long investigative piece ran in Barron’s, people still kept giving their money to Madoff, including many important Jewish philanthropists and organizations such as Yeshiva University and Hadassah. At one point, Markopolos thought he’d interested a Wall Street Journal reporter, but that came to nothing. Does Prosserman ask the reporter what happened? Does he ask anyone why the financial press was unsuccessful or uninterested in exposing the huge fraud? No, he seems to have talked to no one but Harry and Frank.
Enough, already. There will surely be good feature and documentary films about the Madoff story, just because it’s a great yarn and says so much about the culture of finance we’ve created over the past 30 years, and because so much still remains unknown. “Chasing Madoff” isn’t one of them.