It’s tough to watch Wizard of Lies. You want to scream at everyone on the screen. That’s because we already know how the story of Bernie Madoff’s multibillion-dollar scam ends: with thousands of ruined lives.
Robert De Niro earned an Emmy nod for his starring role as financial fraudster Madoff, who tricked his clients out of their money by building an asset management company over the course of at least two decades that was nothing but a Ponzi scheme. Meaning, he just kept moving people’s money around — shelling out high “returns” to older clients that were paid for by new clients’ funds, rather than actual investment profits. He was able to do this for so long because money kept flowing in from new customers and his reputation grew and grew. It was quite the vicious cycle.
This 133-minute TV movie jumps around in time and is anchored by scenes of interviews Madoff had in jail with New York Times reporter Diana B. Henriques (who plays herself) — Wizard of Lies is based on her book of the same name. I found those conversations chilling, as Madoff seems completely devoid of any emotion or remorse for bilking friends, relatives, celebrities and even a Holocaust survivor out of their life savings.
If you’re trying to understand exactly how Madoff did what he did for all those years, that’s not really what Wizard of Lies focuses on, though you’ll get the gist. Outside of the prison interviews and a few flashbacks to happier times for the Madoff family, the story revolves around the final days of Bernie’s scam and the toll it took on his wife (Michelle Pfeiffer, also nominated for an Emmy) and the couple’s sons. You may go into this movie thinking that if would be hard to feel sorry for privileged rich people, but their level of cluelessness about what Bernie was up to — and how utterly destroyed their lives were after he’s sent to prison — certainly earned my sympathy.
In addition to De Niro and Pfeiffer’s acting nominations, Wizard of Lies also received Emmy nods for Outstanding Television Movie and Outstanding Casting for a Limited Movie, which brings me to Hank Azaria’s turn as the crude Frank DiPascali, Madoff’s right hand man, and Alessandro Nivola, Madoff’s son Mark, who pays the greatest price for his father’s evil deeds. Though I felt De Niro’s performance was simply outstanding, it of course helped that he was surrounded by an excellent cast who will suck you into this real-life tragedy . . . and perhaps make you feel like it might be OK to not be a millionaire.