ABC News’ fingerprints are all over “Madoff,” a four-hour miniseries chronicling Bernie Madoff’s financial high crimes. News footage (all from ABC, naturally) peppers the project, which is based on a book by correspondent Brian Ross. Yet despite a showy performance by Richard Dreyfuss in the title role, the production is mostly inert, exhibiting a somewhat antiseptic quality, and downplaying perhaps its most fascinating element. Those who invest their time in “Madoff” shouldn’t come away feeling fleeced, exactly, but given the inherent dramatic possibilities in the story, the return for viewers seems at best marginal.
Indeed, while ABC beat HBO to the punch, this production, from the Alphabet’s Lincoln Square arm (previously responsible for its short-lived drama “The Assets,” about CIA mole Aldrich Ames), should do little to temper anticipation for “The Wizard of Lies,” HBO’s upcoming take on the story, starring Robert De Niro and Michelle Pfeiffer.
“As long as deposits outpace withdrawals, you can live like a king,” Bernie explains in voiceover near the outset, part of a narration explaining how his Ponzi scheme worked, not just in the details, but by preying on the avarice of his investors. Here, it’s 2008, the market is flying high, and Bernie brags about how he pulled it off for so long, making his fund sound so exclusive – and acting so unconcerned about whether people invested – as to perform a sort-of psychological jujitsu, prompting wealthy folks to practically beg him to take their money.
Madoff’s ill-gotten gains financed a lavish lifestyle with his wife, Ruth (Blythe Danner), but also fostered resentment from his sons (Tom Lipinski, Danny Defarrari), who worked for the business, but were largely locked out of its inner sanctum.
Yet as adapted by writer Ben Robbins and director Raymond De Felitta, “Madoff” (which claims to be “inspired by” true events, acknowledging the customary composite-character license) is a bit too enamored with its leading man, proving that TV’s demographic bias can be set aside when a septuagenarian is inordinately wealthy and evil. Dreyfuss certainly commands center stage with this meaty role, although in the process, some other intriguing names – including Peter Scolari, Charles Grodin and Lewis Black – don’t have much in their portfolios.
The intent focus on the former Nasdaq chair also means that an equally interesting thread gets narratively shortchanged: that involving Harry Markopolos (Frank Whaley), a securities trader who, after being pressed to decipher how to reverse-engineer Madoff’s lofty returns, concludes it’s all a fraud – becoming a Chicken Little whose impassioned pleas for the feds to intervene were long ignored.
“Madoff” improves in its second half, as the title character begins to feel the noose tightening around his neck, often lying on the floor of his office to alleviate the stress as he waits for someone, anyone, to expose him. Eventually, he has to come clean to his family, in perhaps the best moment quietly telling his wife, who can’t believe he might be jail-bound, “Yes, Ruthie, I am a criminal.”
Oddly, though, this old-fashioned miniseries does a reasonably good job of conveying its complex financial machinations at the expense of the ostensibly simpler task of tapping into its inherent drama and tragedy. (A montage of Madoff victims, near the end, does as much to muddy those waters as illuminate them.)
In voiceover, Bernie talks almost gleefully about his skills as a con man, and at one point says, “Nobody wants the magic trick explained.” In terms of portraying the numerous subplots surrounding this story, “Madoff” is a pretty fair juggling act. As for making the tale actually spark to life, that’s a bit of prestidigitation that this straightforward account ultimately can’t muster.