Attorney Marc Dreier, the mastermind behind one of the largest securities and money fraud schemes in U.S. history, is treated with kid gloves in “Unraveled,” a slick, carefully made docu whose effect diminishes soon after the closing credits. It’s hard to imagine a similarly borderline-sympathetic film being made about Bernie Madoff, but pic’s access to Dreier’s private life gives it some cachet. Sure to raise the hackles of critics of the Wall Street fraudsters who triggered today’s economic crisis, pic will struggle to nab a distrib prior to its eventual Showtime airing.
Pic’s access partly stems from the fact that director Marc H. Simon was employed as a lawyer at Dreier’s solo-shingle Manhattan firm, Dreier LLP. That Simon also lost his job due to his boss’ world-class malfeasance, which involved nearly a billion dollars in funds and securities fraudulently put on the firm’s books when it was hemorrhaging money, doesn’t appear to fill him with anger toward Dreier. (Or if it does, it’s well hidden.) As the camera dwells on Dreier, under house arrest in his uber-tony New York apartment prior to his July 2009 conviction, a certain sympathy toward the swindler seeps into the film that may strike some viewers as interesting and others as abhorrent.
“I lost my way, my common sense, my judgment,” Dreier says, in some ways using Simon’s film as a confessional. How he lost his way is really never sufficiently explained, making the decision to cast Dreier as the central narrator of his own tale highly questionable. It’s depiction of him as a man without friends (except for his poodle), with only college-age son Spencer as a family companion, may help explain why no one appears onscreen to cast further light on Dreier’s character and behavior, but it nevertheless creates the impression of a needless gap in the docu’s overall storytelling. (No apparent effort is made to gain input from Dreier’s former partners Neil Baritz and William Federman.)
Having amassed more than two decades of experience as a New York lawyer, Dreier chose to strike out on his own after dissolving his partnership with Baritz and Federman in 2002, and, in his own depiction — which the film takes at face value — created Dreier LLP purely on the faith and credit of his financial backers. Eventually, the firm grew to employ 800 attorneys plus staff, expanding to offices in six cities.
The key to Dreier’s fall, as far as this story goes, appears to be his obsession with keeping up appearances. Although he was never sufficiently capitalized to maintain the business, let alone grow it, Dreier says he was driven to seem sufficiently successful in order to attract well-heeled clients who in turn could bring needed business and revenue to the firm. Essentially, his amassing of luxury goods, from cars to artwork, far exceeded revenues; when the bills came in, Dreier turned to fraud. His downfall is illustrated with animated sequences, drawn in a by now overly familiar style that might be termed graphic-novel realism.
Much of the pic, however, shows Dreier living in his pad on borrowed time, poring over the New York Times, watching TV with Spencer and cuddling with his dog. This picture of white-collar criminal as Everyman raises some serious ethical issues, not least of which is the question whether such luxury of space and time could ever be granted to blue-collar crooks nabbed for stealing far less money. The film, in some ways, can be viewed as a luxury good itself, unintentionally demonstrating how the rich aren’t like the rest of us, even when they plead guilty.
Production package is pro across the board, and up to the standards of a Showtime broadcast.