The Wizard of Lies: Robert De Niro and Barry Levinson reveal the very human toll of the Madoff scandal

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11 May 2017

HBO, premieres Saturday, May 20, 8:00 PM ET

By Lori Acken

Yes, HBO’s The Wizard of Lies revisits Bernie Madoff’s $65 billion Ponzi scheme. But the film is not about dredging up scandal.

Based on New York Times reporter Diana B. Henriques’ bestseller The Wizard of Lies: Bernie Madoff and the Death of Trust and starring Robert De Niro as Madoff, the film, which bows Saturday, is instead a character study centered on the devastating fickleness and frailty of the human psyche. Was it faith, ego or psychopathy that led a world-renowned financier to feed a decades-long fraud for which he had no exit plan? What drove wise business minds to ignore Madoff’s improbable returns in a tempestuous market and trust him with millions? And how much did Madoff’s own family members truly know of the scam?

Henriques — who plays herself in the film and serves as its narrator — had unprecedented\ access to the imprisoned Bernie, and re-creations of their interviews frame the film, allowing De Niro to deliver a quiet storm of a performance as the fallout of Madoff’s sins becomes ever more apparent. “Madoff came off candid, relaxed, sincere and trustworthy,” Henriques observes.

“That is his talent and his curse.” “It’s a classic element of a certain type of con — it’s a privilege to get his recognition,” De Niro agrees. “That’s a very powerful position, and he got into that position, probably through his demeanor. He looked like a guy you could trust. Uncle Bernie.”

Papa Bernie is another story. Secretive and unsentimental with sons Andrew (Nathan Darrow) and Mark (Alessandro Nivola, a veritable study in devastation), he set the men up for success via his investment firm’s legitimate brokerage arm, while keeping them and wife Ruth (Michelle Pfeiffer) in the dark about the fraudulent wealth management arm until it was too late to save them from the scorn and implication that would leave Ruth a recluse and drive Mark to suicide. Instead Madoff employed everyday folks on the infamous 17th floor — blue-collar souls who believed that earning millions despite no financial training was their due.

Director Barry Levinson says Pfeiffer and De Niro’s intense connection (the pair also played marrieds in 2013’s The Family) made his job easy, and indeed, the film’s most shattering guessing game is deciphering what Ruth and her boys knew. “It’s an important part of the piece,” Levinson says. “You grow up with everybody telling you your father is this wonderful man, so when this thing blew up, emotionally your world is upside down. Your father, admired and loved, is a complete fraud.”

“What else could he do except protect them as best that he knew and rationalize it that they would not be held accountable?” De Niro reflects. “But they were held accountable in another way, by public opinion.”
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