Director: Jeff Prosserman
by Jon Cvack
I have a borderline obsession with documentaries and narratives that explore Wall Street. Casino Jack, the multiple Frontline series about the financial crash, and most recently The Big Short. All of these films provide both a breakdown of complex economic ideas and the fascinating characters behind these decisions. I had seen and a read a bit about the Madoff Affair. Most recently there was a meme mentioning how Madoff went to prison because he screwed over the 1%, while none but one CEO went to jail for the ‘08 crash because they screwed over the other 99%. Whether valid or not, it does provide a macro understanding of the situation. Bernie Madoff started an exclusive hedge fund, in which he took money from some of the world’s wealthiest people and created one of the most sophisticated and lucrative ponzi schemes in history.
Three New York bankers understood the fraud nearly a decade before Madoff’s scheme came crashing down - Frank Casey, Neil Chelo, and Harry Markopolos. Markopolos really steals the film’s focus, utilizing his sophisticated mathematical and analytics skills, discovering that it was all bullshit. While the men warned the SEC, nothing happened, and so the film cuts back again and again to the multiple SEC investigators who explain how and why they failed to follow up the investigation, castigated for their negligence by numerous congressmen. From my understanding, the problem was rooted in the SEC’s gross underfunding, preventing them from following up with each complaint; though how they were capable of ignoring countless complaints with so much evidence provided is beyond me.
Nevertheless, the documentary is just not that great. The title is misleading, though in all fairness, I guess it makes sense when you really think about it. No one is really ‘chasing’ Madoff, so much as the three men are trying to inform the SEC, while Markopolos’ paranoia starts to reach staggering proportions. He starts carrying around a gun and checking for bombs, and proceeds to repeat this point multiple times. The guy is smart and arrogant, joking about how he was "wayyy too young" to get married at 45. He reminds you of that smart nerd type who went to Wall Street and made some money as a way to get vindication for all his gawky teenage years, developing a gross amount of arrogance along the way. When he finally abandons his position at the hedge fund in order to become a private frauds investigator you start to give him some respect. Problem is, beyond the general details, I had no idea what was going on.
The number one rule when making a film about the financial industry is to break down complex ideas in order to make viewers understand how they worked and where they went wrong. Chasing Madoff ignores the details, focusing instead on the characters, which just weren’t all that interesting. They get into strange and distracting stylistic choices, floating between strange editorial wipes to make it seem as though their subjects are sitting next to each other, when we know they aren’t, and periodically cutting to Markopolos’ office with black and white, film noir elements, including louver blinds, a twirling fan, and harsh shadows. Combine this with a highly superficial explanation of Madoff’s dealings and it gets boring pretty fast. They kept putting up an ornate graphic involving hundreds of white orbs pointing to a big red orb, demonstrating what the ponzi scheme looked like, but doing a terrible job explaining 1) why people would fall for it, 2) how Bernie and his team were convincing people for so long, 3) how they recruited new customers, 4) why the SEC failed to investigate, and about a hundred other questions. It seemed like the filmmakers thought they had solid subjects, and for a short film, this could have worked. Instead, although only 90 minutes, I found my attention wandering, pondering over certain questions and making a mental note that I should check up on it when I was all done with the film.
The film is an okay supplemental to other Madoff documentaries, but it’s best to pick up a few books and watch the Frontline documentary first. Chasing Madoff felt lazy and I was left wanting to know far more than I learned, and not in the good way.
BELOW: Slim pickings for scenes on the YouTube front, so here's a DP/30 interview with Markopolos (which must be better than the film as I've never seen DP/30 do a two-part interview)
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