The day Bernard Madoff’s Ponzi scheme came to light, people all over the country (and even the world) saw their financial security crumble to dust right before their eyes. Or at least they thought they did. It would be more correct to say that they saw for the first time the dust that their financial futures had become, because in fact Madoff’s scheme had been running for over ten years, and for most people who lost it all, their money was long gone years before. It seemed like such a shock, a stunning revelation. How could no one have seen this coming until it was too late? It turns out someone did: Harry Markopolos. Chasing Madoff brings to life his decade-long struggle to get the SEC to move into action, but with an unnecessary overemphasis on his degrading mental state and in a way that indulges him in his fifteen minutes of fame.
While working under Frank Casey at a rival firm, Harry came across Madoff’s projected numbers for investment profits and within minutes knew something was wrong. He checked the numbers twice and then ran them by his assistant Neil Chelo who checked them again. The numbers couldn’t be right, they promised a level of return that just didn’t happen in securities – ever. The attention of Harry, Frank, and Neil was officially piqued and they began their investigation that would carry them through the better part of a decade, even as they moved on to different firms. The numbers just couldn’t be right.
And, as we all know now, they weren’t. Not by a long shot.
Unfortunately, when someone spots financial fraud there are only so many avenues to pursue to bring the deception to justice. The story outlines the multiple attempts at contacting the Security & Exchange Commission, and Harry even went as far as to give them the number broken down on numerous occasions. Just as they thought they were getting somewhere, the SEC went nowhere. Their inaction, among other mitigating factors, prompted a streak of paranoia in Harry. If Madoff could get the SEC to turn a blind eye, what couldn’t he do? Who’s to say Madoff couldn’t have him killed? What started as Harry’s delusion only escalated further when their journalist associate had his expose on the matter all but ignored by the community. Somehow, Madoff’s criminal success was going underneath everyone’s radar, and the film’s ultimate answer as to exactly how it all came to be is true, and frankly much scarier than a worldwide conspiracy theory.
Worldwide willful ignorance.
With so many people under the impression that their finances are soaring even in difficult times, people were remiss to take any serious action against Madoff. If you didn’t see the bigger picture and only based your assessment off the monthly statement slips updating you on your earnings, then it didn’t seem wildly impossible, just really improbable and in a way you liked.
No matter how you slice it, Harry’s story as the one-eyed mind in the land of the blind is interesting. It’s the biggest financial scandal of all-time and it ruined so many lives that you could make a film built entirely out of stories of broken dreams, which Director Jeff Prosserman leans on here a little but never takes too far. Where he does go overboard is in giving voice to Harry’s paranoia. True as it may be, it seems like an odd tangent that seriously detracts from the savory meat of the story: the sleuthing and attempts to reveal Madoff’s trickery. Every time Prosserman takes us away from that story to show us how Harry bought a bulletproof vest or gradually lost bits of his sanity, he makes Harry into more of a caricature than a neglected genius. It’s entirely unnecessary and it’s made worse by the fact that nothing ever happened. For all of Harry’s preparation and paranoia, there’s not a single shred of evidence to support the idea that Madoff was even thinking about harming Harry or his family, which makes it feel even more out of place.
In a film about a man who gathered stacks of undeniable, incontrovertible proof about the fraud inherent in Madoff’s company, equal time is given to that aforementioned flimsy, baseless premise as is to what most people want to hear about most: why didn’t the SEC listen? Instead of getting a fully fleshed out answer to that by interviewing a spectrum of SEC officials, we jump to the end, where there’s footage from the hearings into the investigation of the SEC’s incompetency. The clips are satisfying in that there are a few rightfully frustrated politician railing against the SEC chairs asking how they could be so blind and irresponsible when someone like Harry had the foresight to not only do all the investigative work, but then wrap in such a nice package and leave it on their doorstep many times. Yet it’s more of a band-aid, a sort of subpar piece of closure that feels tacked on because there wasn’t enough time after so much of the film had been spent on Harry’s sense of doom.
Then, as if to add insult to injury, Prosserman adds an another layer of distraction: horrifically conceived cutaways meant to give the film some style and pizzazz but which makes the whole proceeding almost intolerable. It's the sort of embellishments you use when you have 45-minute story that you need to stretch into 90, but in the case of Chasing Madoff, he had a decade's worth of material which he squandered visually. Cuts to burning cash and a fictional assailant dropping a brick, are among the flourishes that make you wonder if he was making a conscious effort to sabotage himself. It's a film whose subject matter could draw hundreds of thousands to a theater and with the man who knows the story better than anyone else at it's center, yet Prosserman throws it all away for an element of glitz that starts as purely distracting but elevates to infuriating as it wastes time and detracts from the weight of everything the film should be saying.
Chasing Madoff loses sight of its priorities and gets distracted with 40 minutes of footage about Harry’s paranoia. For a film that should have been entirely about the process of bringing Madoff’s injustice to light, it’s as much a story of bureaucratic incompetency as it is the questionable sanity of the man who saw the emperor wasn’t wearing any clothes. The road to Harry’s public validation was ten-years-long and yet Prosserman couldn’t figure out how to milk that for a 90-minute film devoted solely to the investigations. It’s a shame.
"Chasing Madoff" opens August 26, 2011 and is not rated. Documentary. Written and directed by Jeff Prosserman. Starring Harry Markopolos.