The line goes straight up at a 45-degree angle. It never makes a downturn, never changes its upward path. For anyone with a background in large-scale investment, it can only mean one thing: fraud.
That rising line purported to show the returns on investments made by Bernard Madoff through his intricate network of funds and companies. Harry Markopolos, Boston-based securities analyst took one look at that graph and pronounced Madoff’s claims bogus. He found himself drawn slowly and inexorably into a 10-year hunt for the elusive truth about Madoff, a frustrating, fear-inducing quest that is the subject of “Chasing Madoff,” a new documentary produced, written and directed by Jeff Prosserman, which opens on Friday, Aug. 26.
Originally Markopolos was part of a team working for a firm that was trying to compete with Madoff. It’s hard to compete with someone whose self-invented won-loss record never shows a loss. As Markopolos says in the film, in baseball a hitter who had the same rate of success as Madoff claimed would have a .946 batting average. Equally suspicious was the fact that, although Madoff was running the largest wealth management firm in the world, nobody in the business seemed to know about it. The film follows Markopolos’ gradually growing obsession with finding out the truth about Madoff and the results of his investigations.
The mechanics of a Ponzi scheme — the type of fraud that Madoff engineered, albeit on an unprecedented and global scale — are straightforward. The conman takes money from client A, saying he will invest it as a huge profit. He makes the same promise to clients B, C, D and so on, and when they “invest” with him, he pays off client A at a profit with the funds he received from the subsequent clients. Madoff dressed it up with a staggering number of bells and whistles and performed on a level that staggers the imagination. But eventually he ran up against the same ceiling that brought down other thieves of his ilk, including Charles Ponzi, whose name has become synonymous with the scam: you have to keep the scheme growing indefinitely or the roof falls in.
Oh, and you can’t get caught. A dedicated, ultimately obsessed antagonist like Markopolos and his tiny group of fraud-hunters can make things unravel a lot faster.
If anyone is listening to them.
The most disturbing aspect of “Chasing Madoff” and of Markopolos’ own book “No One Would Listen” is the complete and utter failure of the Securities and Exchange Commission to act on his findings, despite repeated attempts to get its attention. (Recent revelations of massive file destruction at the agency should revive questions about their conduct in this matter, among others).
It takes a patient filmmaker to explain the complicated workings of a case like Madoff’s. Markopolos, who is the hero of “Chasing Madoff,” is certainly skilled and articulate enough to make the case clear, but Jeff Prosserman, the writer-director, is like a very bright but over-stimulated child. The film tears along at a breakneck pace with everything recounted too quickly. Explanations rush by, with crude montage sequences reminiscent of the worst of early Soviet filmmaking as illustration. Madoff’s operation is likened to an octopus? Great, here’s a shot of an octopus’ tentacles writhing across the screen. If you didn’t get the point, we’ll repeat it a couple more times at seemingly random moments. Markopolos invokes the .946 batting average metaphor? Here’s Ted Williams hitting a home run. And again and again.
Given the lack of film footage of most of the events that the film’s interview subjects describe, reenactments are an inevitable, if regrettable, necessity. Errol Morris has plowed this furrow in his recent political documentaries to great effect. But “Chasing Madoff” feels like it is almost entirely re-enactments, and that does a disservice to the truth of the story. More annoying, most of the film is cut so fast on the eye that it feels more like an episode of “CSI” than a sober account of a criminal conspiracy so vast that it helped shake world markets and severely damaged an entire sector of the Jewish communal world and other charitable institutions, not to mention the lives of thousands of individual investors.
The Madoff scandal is one that cries out for a comprehensive and insightful documentary film treatment. One can only dream of such a film made by, for example, Charles Ferguson whose “No End in Sight” and “Inside Job” reveal a storyteller with the patience, skill and conceptual grasp to make the most complex reality understandable. “Chasing Madoff,” by comparison, is a painfully lost opportunity.
“Chasing Madoff,” produced, written and directed by Jeff Prosserman, opens on Friday, Aug. 26 at the Lincoln Square Theater (13th Street and Broadway), the Angelika Film Center (Mercer St. and W. Houston) and the City Cinemas 1, 2 and 3 (60th Street and Third Avenue).