WHAT IT’S ABOUT Bernard Madoff (Richard Dreyfuss) ran one of the most respected “closed” funds on Wall Street — until the 2008 crash exposed it for what it really was, the biggest Ponzi scheme in history. From his Manhattan offices, Madoff was overseer of an apparently legit brokerage, run largely by his sons Mark (Tom Lipinski), Andrew (Danny Deferrari), and brother Peter (Peter Scolari). But the real action was on the 17th floor, where Frank DiPascali (Michael Rispoli) took in billions that went directly to Madoff’s personal Chase account. Investors got annual returns of around 15 percent — simply by virtue of the money other investors handed over to Madoff. Madoff — long married to Ruth (Blythe Danner) — says he’s devoted to family. But not really.
Per ABC, this miniseries was “inspired” by “The Madoff Chronicles: Inside the Secret World of Bernie and Ruth,” the 2009 book by ABC News chief investigative correspondent Brian Ross.
MY SAY Four hours and two nights might seem like a long time to spend with Bernard Madoff — and, by the way, it is — but imagine the time Richard Dreyfuss had to spend with him. A legendary actor, occasionally a great one, Dreyfuss isn’t someone to phone anything in, least of all this. Months must’ve been devoted to perfecting the infamous Madoff smirk and the internal voice that occasionally breaks in to remind viewers that the guy on the inside is no better than the one on the outside (“I stabbed him in the back for a Band-Aid!”).
More months had to go into figuring out ways to portray this person, before essentially arriving at a famous line Hunter S. Thompson wrote long ago in “Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas”: “No sympathy for the devil.” None given here.
Dreyfuss’ portrayal is written in acid. His Madoff sneers, lies and cheats. He not only takes money from the rich to give to the richer (himself), but from the poor, too. He’d be rotten to the core except there’s no core to rot: It’s a pristine, hollow space, uncluttered by guilt or remorse.
Most biopics make an assumption viewers want at least a minimally relatable subject. Not Dreyfuss’ Bernie: Relate only at your own risk.
So, as a viewer, that’s your challenge — or is the word “homework?” Smart, well written (by Ben Robbins), and based on the reporting of one of network TV’s pre-eminent investigative journalists, “Madoff” succeeds in explaining what happened but struggles to find any emotional anchor. Madoff’s so-called “Rosebud” — the traumatic childhood event that made him do the terrible things he did as an adult — arrives in the last line to the miniseries. Far too little, and far too late, and who cares anyway?
Danner’s Ruth is a society doyenne who knows nothing and would like to keep it that way. Also incurious are the sons, who wonder about their father’s 17th-floor boiler room operation but not enough to ask questions. Tragic figures, but not necessarily sympathetic. Likewise, Scolari’s Peter Madoff: He’s tortured by the depravity of the scam but too weak to put a stop to it. Finally, “Madoff” deploys the old trick of going to a few of the real-life victims in the closing seconds, but they’re just names and faces on-screen.
But as an instructional film, “Madoff” works well. The first night culminates with a botched Securities and Exchange Commission investigation that could have ended the Ponzi scheme years earlier — if only one phone call had been made. Even Madoff marvels at the oversight. A whistle-blower, Harry Markopolos (Frank Whaley), quickly discovers the fraud. He’s the real hero of the film, though here just a number cruncher who ends up more embittered after Madoff’s fall than before. There’s a scene where DiPascali shows a couple of billionaire rubes their various stock positions — nothing more than some phony numbers sent up by a boiler-room factotum.
Occasionally “Madoff” relies on Madoff’s interior thoughts — creative license that doesn’t add much to either the story or the understanding of Madoff himself — but there is one line that sticks. When (the real) Madoff was mobbed by a gaggle of reporters shortly after his 2008 arrest, he smirked for the cameras. “I know what you think you saw in that smirk,” says Dreyfuss’ Madoff. “You think you saw a man scorning the world. Well, you couldn’t have been more wrong.”
Based on “Madoff,” you couldn’t have been more right.
BOTTOM LINE Two nights implies this will be “epic,” but this is the anti-epic miniseries, where the subject gets smaller and smaller while his crimes get larger and larger. It’s instructional — just not emotionally engaging.