An unlikely protagonist grants first-time filmmakers Victor Kubicek and Derek Anderson a personalized, well-structured entree into the convoluted schemes by which Bernie Madoff made off with billions in investors’ money in “In God We Trust.” Eleanor Squillari, Madoff’s personal secretary of 25 years, describes her devastation and shock upon learning that the biggest financial scam in U.S. history was perpetrated right under her very nose, embarking on a private crusade to aid the FBI investigation by phoning colleagues and poring over a quarter-century’s worth of receipts, notes, schedules and correspondence. Engrossing docu could attract niche play before its inevitable tube airing.
Detailing the fine points of a decades-long fraud with the breadth and complexity of a delirious juggling act might have made for heavy sledding in a more straight-on, objective documentary. But the filmmakers’ decision to frame the information through the eyes of one of the thousands Madoff duped, someone uniquely situated to contribute to his prosecution and uncover other predators disguised as victims, simplifies the film’s exposition, giving it a subjective timeline and focus.
Ironically, it was Squillari’s dedication to her boss that made her ignore the office mandate to destroy all written records after they had been typed: She worried that he might later need the originals and therefore kept them in her own files, these stored documents now serving as handwritten proof of the perfidy of Madoff and associates. She also tracks down journalists who questioned the legitimacy of Madoff’s operation long before the stock market crash made it collapse like a house of cards in May 2008, interviewing them on camera as they explain the intricacies of Madoff’s maneuverings and expound on the theory that, in addition to his big Ponzi scheme, he was heavily involved in money laundering and not necessarily the only one who profited.
The crew’s cameras provide ample coverage (in re-enactments as well as on-the-fly moments) of Squillari’s interaction with FBI agent Brad Garrett, who repeatedly expresses deep gratitude for her help. Squillari furnishes the bureau with a map of Madoff’s headquarters, including the “legit” trading center on the 18th floor of the “Lipstick Building,” where Madoff’s sons brokered (in total ignorance of their father’s nefarious dealings, Squillari fervently believes). She offers them a painstakingly detailed layout for the low-tech, locked-down 17th floor, where fake documentation was generated by a gang of thuggish-looking individuals who all resided in multimillion dollar houses. Meanwhile, Squillari winds up moving out of the modest Staten Island home she can no longer afford.
The docu’s last section concerns Squillari’s advocacy for those whose life savings were swept away, and who know demand justice from a government they hold responsible for failing to protect investors. They argue that if the SEC had truly investigated Madoff’s holdings, they could easily have figured out that the cupboard was bare, with nothing to match the fictional paper transactions sent out globally to thousands of individuals, pension funds and charitable institutions. Other approaches might have painted a clearer picture of the scope and inner workings of Madoff’s empire, but there’s no mistaking the resonance of one feisty 59-year-old woman’s dogged efforts to come to grips with what she had previously missed.