Something strange happened to me. I went to sleep one evening and woke up in a parallel universe in which Bernard Madoff was considered a tragic hero.
At least that would seem to be the message conveyed by “Madoff,” the ABC miniseries that aired last week. Although I adore Blythe Danner and have always admired Richard Dreyfuss, who played the Madoffs, I skipped the four-hour broadcast. A new semester of teaching and various Jewish Week responsibilities made those four hours too valuable to be spent rehashing the exploits of someone who did a brutal disservice to the Jewish communal world.
But reading a wide range of the reviews, I get the impression that in their desire to humanize Madoff the filmmakers (screenwriter Ben Robbins and director Raymond De Felitta) made him into something he wasn’t. As a Smithsonian writer interviewing Dreyfuss puts it, Madoff became “Shakespearean.” Amber Dowling, reviewing the drama for The Wrap, a useful entertainment news website, describes the show as “a surprisingly humane narrative.”
The most devastating criticism comes from The New York Times, via TV critic Mike Hale. “Bernie didn’t fail us. We failed Bernie. That’s the message, perhaps unintentional, of the … mini-series. Mr. Madoff was just a poor boy from Queens with a dream.”
Do not misunderstand me. Good drama should have moral complexity, and that means that even the worst characters should get an opportunity to make their case. Casting Dreyfuss almost guarantees that Madoff will get a fair shake. He’s an appealing actor with a whimsical streak that has usually transformed him from a boychik-in-the-hood into something more interesting.
What troubles me is that part of the project’s appeal seems to have been the image of Madoff as some kind of Robin Hood who only fleeced the rich. As any New York Mets fan can tell you, Madoff certainly had his share of platinum-card-bearing suckers. And Dreyfuss, in the Smithsonian interview seems to think that the roots of Madoff’s scam lay in the altruism that led to his once covering clients’ losses out of his own pocket after a market downturn.
I, however, prefer to think about the elderly mother of a friend and colleague, whose savings from her late husband’s pension were completely obliterated by Madoff. She was one of thousands of not-so-wealthy victims of his peculations.
And, as I said before, a disturbingly large number of his institutional targets were important Jewish nonprofits. In several off-the-record conversations, I’ve received confirmation that the after-effects of the Madoff swindle are being felt in those organizations even now, almost eight years after his crimes came to light. I’ve seen programs curtailed and jobs swept away. What I haven’t seen, for the most part, is a discussion of why he targeted these institutions and, in doing so, further damaged the lives of people who didn’t have the resources to fight back in the courts.
Contrary to conservative theories of “trickle-down economics,” it isn’t prosperity that spreads like a soothing balm. As the Madoff affair proves yet again, what trickles down most effectively is misery. Massive losses by Jewish nonprofits translate into similarly devastating losses in advertising revenue for Jewish media outlets, fewer sources of funding for Jewish museums, theater groups, film programs, writers, artists and so on. Combined with the 2008 global economic crash, Madoff stole from a lot more people than just his wealthiest marks.
In a perverse way, the whole thing reminds me of a different kind of Jewish outlaw, Samuel “Red” Levine, who was a valued employee of Charles “Lucky” Luciano. Luciano called him “the best driver and hit man I had.” As recounted in Robert A. Rockaway’s entertaining history of Jewish gangsters, “But He Was Good to His Mother,” Levine was an Orthodox Jew who “tried not to kill anyone on the Sabbath.” Of course, given his line of work, as Rockaway concludes, “If he had no choice and had to make a hit on that particular day, he would put a [tallit] over his shoulders and pray before doing anything.”
I somehow doubt that Bernie Madoff was as pious.
George Robinson’s column appears the second week of the month.