The Wizard of Lies (2017)

At the start of this blogpost I have to point out that The Wizard of Lies (2017) is a HBO TV Movie, that is, a TV movie, premiering on the small screen and starring Robert De Niro and Michelle Pfeiffer and directed by Barry Levinson. 

In the old days, Oscar winners doing TV movies signalled that they were old, and their career was essentially over. It’s not like that now, The Wizard of Lies (2017) is a prestige production, De Niro and Pfeiffer are as good as they have ever been and Levinson mounts a very interesting, compulsive film, and it is a ‘film’ but it’s for TV, that used to be looked down on, but a lot of cinemas are packed out playing Marvel or comic book movies (essentially kids films, not really cinema – ask Martin Scorsese about that). 

So, this intelligent drama, has ended up as a feature on HBO, ‘Television Jim, but not as we’ve known it’, things have changed, and an Oscar winning director and actors, will jump at the chance to work on an intelligent drama (on HBO, Amazon or Netflix). Actors, directors and writers are like cherry pickers, and they go, to where the cherries grow, and now, more and more it may be on TV or streaming platforms, not on the big screen.

First off, this is an intelligent film, based on the true story of Bernie Madeoff, who mounted a very long lasting and successful ‘Ponzi’ scheme.  A Ponzi scheme is a basic con, an investment scheme that offers good returns, the returns are actually paid from money paid in by the investors, the scheme needs to grow to keep paying out, so the returns are really good and attract more and more people – eventually of course it will collapse, especially, if investors panic at the market, and start asking for their principle investment back.  This happened to Madeoff during the 2008 financial collapse, if it hadn’t been for the collapse, Madeoff’s scheme, could have gone on for another 16 years (or more…)

Despite, the almost impossible run of  high profit long term payouts the scheme had been making, very few people, realised that Bernie was a con man, indeed, Bernie was revered as a kind of Warren Buffett type figure, a market genius. Some very bright people did spot that Madeoff’s scheme must have been faked, but when they reported their findings, the authorities either ignored these warnings or were easily fobbed off by Madeoff, who was a convincing and well respected figure, almost part of the establishment in finance, unlike the outliers who said it was all fake. 

It seems, even at Madeoffs firm, only a few key people knew the whole thing was a long con. Madeoff’s two sons and wife had no idea what was going on.

Madeoff, managed to keep the whole circus on the go for 16 years, and enjoyed a lavish lifestyle. He’s currently serving 100+ years in prison, and pleaded guilty to all allegations when caught. Investors in the scheme have been victims of a con, but some of these investors were banking intuitions, and should have done their homework, due diligence and known better, and many of the investors were the mega rich, keen to earn an even bigger return on their millions. It’s said Steven Spielberg was a big investor (Steve’s not short of a few bob).

The film is interesting, and focuses on the effects of the fraud on the family, it’s hard to have too much sympathy, but Madeoff himself, as played by De Niro comes across as a shocking person, a gambler, a criminal and at times desperate to cover his crime and keep the show on the road.

The financial collapse of 2007/2008 changed the world, much of the debt, and collapse of banking houses (in the UK at least) was passed onto the regular tax payer. Madeoff was exposed by the collapse, but it just shows what a rotten system it is. From time to time I have personally have bought and traded shares as an investment vehicle, and of course I have various pensions invested in the market (nearly all of us do).  The recent events in 2020, the covid pandemic and economic impact are not (in my opinion) reflected in the stock market at all, which seems to exist in a different reality entirely – like Madeoffs fund. Madeoff was a con man, but sometimes it looks like he was playing in a rigged casino.

So, this is a TV movie, three Oscar winners, an intelligent script and a human interest story about one of the biggest financial crimes of the century. Times have changed, just ask Bernie’s wife.

Matthew Cooper has been a script writer for hire, UK Script editor  and UK script consultant for over 20 years. He’s written for most of the UK soaps, including writing award winning episodes of Emmerdale, EastEnders, Hollyoaks and Family Affairs and has been BAFTA shortlisted and Royal Television Society nominated as a script writer. His UK script coverage service and script development service are highly sought after.

You can find some of his broadcast credits on the IMDb.His directorial debut, the rubber reality horror thriller Markham will be released in 2020. You can find out more about Matthew’s work as a director here.

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