The horrifying ramifications of Bernie Madoff’s Ponzi scheme are tragically put on the sidelines in this repetitive docuseries.
Gordon Bennett just wanted to have some stability for the future. So after selling his chain of grocery stores in the 1990s, Bennett turned to the stock market. Looking around for the right people to work with, he chose Bernie Madoff. Over a decade later, Bennett would become one of the countless lives rocked by the reveal that Madoff had been orchestrating the biggest Ponzi scheme America has ever seen. The emotional trauma experienced by Bennett and other victims of Madoff’s wickedness deserved a more consistently engaging docuseries than Madoff: The Monster of Wall Street.
Hailing from Netflix true crime veteran (Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile) Joe Berlinger, this four-episode-long production takes a largely chronological look at who Madoff was and how he became such a powerful and corrupt figure. It begins with this future Wall Street titan emerging from humble beginnings and relying heavily on his father-in-law to make ends meet. Eventually, Madoff engages in some off-the-books activity involving hordes of investors. The move lines his pockets but breaks all kinds of laws. Still, the money keeps flowing in. Despite several people trying to call attention to the corruption at play, the ongoing gains for investors hold regulators at bay until 2008.
While Madoff is unquestionably opportunistic, he owes much of his success to larger historical events bending fate in his favor. For instance, President Ronald Reagan’s insistence on cutting back regulation on Wall Street activity sets much of the stage that kept Madoff’s activities hidden in plain sight for so long.
However, one who lives by larger historical events often dies by them, too. In the same way the post-Reagan deregulation boom allowed Madoff to conceal his criminality, the economic collapse of 2008 left him to twist in the breeze. It started a domino effect that derailed his money train leading directly to the exposure of his Ponzi scheme and inevitable arrest. Everybody loves a winner until they lose, and 2008 handed the financier a steady stream of Ls.
Madoff: The Monster of Wall Street, while often competent, is never exceptional or memorable. It offers little unique insight into Madoff’s choices or the consequences they sparked. Instead, the doc primarily functions as a historical retelling via talking head interviews. The time, date, and place for many occurrences is noted, but Berlinger only makes passing reference to larger connected themes.
[E]verybody in the recreation segments, from Madoff’s children to regulators to investigative reporters, engages in the same cartoony expressions of human emotions.
Nonetheless, these talking heads can pack a wallop. The testimonies from people who lost everything in the Ponzi scheme resonate with such vibrant torment and sorrow. They have idiosyncrasies and specificities that make them stand out from the rote repetition of history. Jeffrey R. Werner’s story of how his losses affected his mother, for instance, is bound to wring tears out of even the most jaded viewer.
It’s a big mistake for Madoff: The Monster of Wall Street to rely so much on so few sources who aren’t victims, though. Considering Diane B. Henriques literally wrote the book on Madoff, The Wizard of Lies, it’s no surprise she’s here. Unfortunately, dedicating so much of the runtime to her anecdotes told over limp recreations of Madoff’s life proves too much. She’s hardly alone, either, as several other interviewees overstay their welcome.
Those recreations certainly don’t help things. Berlinger directs actors like Joseph Scotto and Isa Camyar (playing Madoff and Frank DiPascali, respectively) to play their roles maximally. That makes sense for Madoff who was, by most reports, a larger-than-life figure prone to outbursts of anger. However, everybody in the recreation segments, from Madoff’s children to regulators to investigative reporters, engages in the same cartoony expressions of human emotions. Combine that with the constant slow-motion (it’s even used when somebody’s just walking down a hallway!) makes these recreation segments a total slog to get through.
The fact that Berlinger is capable of framing the story more creatively only makes his failure to do so more frustrating. Take a moment from the end of the third episode. The camera wanders from Scotto’s face to the surrounding soundstage, blurring the line between reality and recreation. There’s a meta-quality that suggests the director has the skill to deliver something far more compelling.
Overall, there’s too little of what the series does best. Whenever the camera cut back to interviews with victims like Bennett and his wife, I wished it would stay there. Their experiences are so captivating. If only Madoff: The Monster of Wall Street had realized these testimonies, not limp recreations of the past, were its best asset.
Madoff: The Monster of Wall Street is now available on Netflix to see you about a new investment opportunity.