With the tone of a horror-thriller, a flamboyant disregard for the ordinary rules of nonfiction and a hero who’s an accountant, “Chasing Madoff” is upbeat in style and downbeat in conclusion: Bernard Madoff, perpetrator of the biggest Ponzi scheme in the history of Wall Street, could have been stopped in his Guccis a decade before his $18 billion scheme was exposed and his 150-year prison sentence handed down. Economic fatigue may dampen ticket sales, but writer-helmer-producer Jeff Prosserman’s docu could have a healthy homevid afterlife, despite some strange directorial choices and a central figure as off-putting as he is tenacious.
That figure is Harry Markopolos, a financial analyst and fraud examiner who, according to Prosserman’s brisk, thorough account, spent five minutes with Madoff’s numbers back in 1999 before declaring the man a charlatan. Markopolos was then working for the Boston-based Rampart investment firm, and his boss, Frank Casey, was trying to lure away some of Madoff’s clients. On paper, Madoff’s record couldn’t be topped, but none of it made sense to the Rampart team, which included Casey, Markopolos and VP Neil Chelo (all used to great effect here). But they couldn’t get anyone to act, least of all representatives of the Securities and Exchange Commission, who come in for the brunt of the film’s angry, far-reaching indictments.
As depressing as it is, the scandalous story behind “Chasing Madoff” is ultimately the stuff of righteous indignation, so Prosserman needn’t have resorted to quite the bag of tricks he empties here. Markopolos, who pursued the case for years despite getting nowhere with the press, the government or institutional investors, says several times that he doesn’t like to be called a hero, even as he allows Prosserman to paint him as exactly that. Seldom has the use of dramatic re-enactments and staged setups been quite this undisciplined: Much time is devoted to Markopolos’ background — his prep-school education, his officer’s status in the Army Reserve, his Catholicism and, in one of several miscalculations, his paranoid enthusiasm for firearms.
Admittedly, it would be naive to think he was in no danger: Considering the money, reputations and lives at stake, and the fact that those involved in the Madoff ripoff had already proven themselves unscrupulous, Markopolos can be excused for having looked over his shoulder. But when he talks about having rehearsed a “battle drill” with his wife in case the SEC came to his house to seize his documents, “Chasing Madoff” wanders into Cuckooville.
No concrete threats were ever directed at Markopolos (not according to the film, at least), which doesn’t stop Prosserman from amping up the action: One re-enactment — or rather, enactment — imagines a bomb going off in Markopolos’ car; another suggests the contract killing of the Markopolos family. It’s all very unnecessary, given the craven villainy and incompetence Prosserman very convincingly and cogently lays out when he sticks to the facts.
The film also missteps in giving too much screentime to grandstanding New York Congressman Gary Ackerman, berating SEC officials during a televised House hearing on Madoff and repeating the same points over and over, and the weepy Madoff victims (identified via their account numbers), who come off as sympathetic but not exactly noble. They weren’t giving their money to Amnesty Intl.; they were motivated by greed and the literally fantastic returns Madoff was “producing.”
As the film tells us, 300 firms have been identified as having aided or abetted Madoff; there have been about a dozen arrests. “Chasing Madoff” is a useful reminder that all is far from well with our financial institutions, which continue to lobby for less regulation rather than more. But the human element of the film is so weirdly distracting it often deflects from its primary target.
Production values are tops, notably David Fluery’s stirring if occasionally overwrought score.