Chasing Madoff (Web Exclusive)
Reviewed by Maria Garcia
Produced by Jeff Prosserman, Jeff Sackman, Randy Manis and Anton Nadler; directed and written by Jeff Prosserman; cinematography by Julian Van Mil; art direction by Harrison Yurkiw; edited by Jeff Bessner; music by David Fleury. Color, 91 min. A Cohen Media Group release.
Chasing Madoff allows Harry Markopolos, a would-be whistleblower, to do what he does best, which is talk about his decade-long effort to expose the Bernie Madoff investment scandal. Markopolos began his investigation in 1999, after his boss, Frank Casey, asked him to design a financial instrument that would match Madoff’s double-digit returns. At the time, Casey was chasing Rene-Thierry Magon de la Villehuchet’s billions, and the Frenchman told him about the profits he was realizing through his investments with Madoff. Markopolos ran Madoff’s numbers and immediately suspected fraud. It’s a story the financial analyst turned investigator also recounts in his best-seller, “No One Would Listen.”
The Securities and Exchange Commission ignored Markopolos, a pistol-packing patriot who says in Chasing Madoff that he conducted his independent investigation on behalf of his country. The gun was to protect him from the Russian mob and other international criminals he believed were Madoff customers and accomplices. To his credit, Markopolos also admits, with a modicum of conviction, that he was not successful in bringing down Madoff, and does not deserve much of the praise he has received. Apparently, first-time filmmaker Jeff Prosserman, who compares Markopolos to Eliot Ness—and, rather enigmatically, the 2008 unveiling of the Ponzi scheme to the 1929 stock market crash—thinks just the opposite. In fact, where the audience might view Markopolos’s story as nothing new and something of a snore, Prosserman introduces it with canned music typical of a Hollywood thriller.
Journalism is kept to a minimum, the writer-director remaining as befuddled as Markopolos about why the SEC failed to examine Madoff’s investments years earlier, when they were provided with considerable evidence of fraud. An agency employee who appears in the documentary admits that the SEC regulators were at fault, yet Prosserman does not push him to explain their inaction. Footage of a congressional committee hearing into the Madoff affair is similarly dissatisfying. SEC executives are seen testifying, but Prosserman does not include any substantial part of their responses; instead, we repeatedly see an outraged congressman badgering the witnesses. Actually, that sequence sums up Prosserman’s aim in the documentary, which is to stir emotion rather than probe the facts. His profile of Markopolos sticks with the analyst’s bizzarre paranoia, and never discusses the information that was contained in the reports Markopolos prepared for the SEC.
Prosserman lines up his talking heads and moves the camera screen left or right, stopping on the one who will speak next. (Think interactive Web page design or scroll and click.) For visual relief, there is the recurring and cheesy graphic of blood dripping on a call slip, which opens the documentary and remains unexplained until the end. It is the filmmaker’s vision of Villehuchet’s suicide, which occurred two weeks after Madoff’s arrest. The call slip represents the phony ones Madoff sent to his customers. A chart that looks like an exploding firework depicts the “feeder funds” not clearly defined in the documentary. These were investment firms and banks that were paid higher than average fees by Madoff to deliver the steady stream of customers required to sustain a Ponzi scheme. Other ubiquitous images are of a bonfire, a matchbook being ignited, and paper money falling from the sky, their incoherence marked by percussive musical punctuation.
In the mind-numbing style of infomercials, everyone in Chasing Madoff says nearly everything twice, and Casey continually parrots Markopolos. Similarly, reenactments immediately follow events described by the fraud investigator. Repetition can serve many artistic purposes in documentary filmmaking, as it did in Errol Morris’s Thin Blue Line, in which testimony is reenacted to prove a false conviction, but in Chasing Madoff it is a cover for the film’s lack of content. Prosserman continually underlines innocuous facts or remarks with a “link” or a diversion, rather than a “cut,” a cinematic ellipsis followed by a meaningful transition.
For instance, Casey says Markopolos told him that if Madoff were a baseball player, he’d be hitting .984. Prosserman, who worked in interactive media before making a documentary, immediately cuts to a clip of Ted Williams at bat. Williams has held the record for the highest batting average in a single season for seventy years. In cinematic terms, the juxtapositioning of the remark and the image sets up a comparison between Williams and Madoff—but not in digital terms where “batting average” would be underlined in, say, a Wikipedia article, providing a link to its definition. The intent of Markopolos’s remark was to posit a ridiculous number—Williams’ record is .406—highlighting the improbable return on investment Madoff provided. Instead, Prosserman uses it to point out singularity. This intellectual sloppiness and amateur filmmaking are exacerbated by an appalling score in which anonymous victims of Madoff’s Ponzi scheme lament to soaring violin accompaniment.
In the end, Chasing Madoff is about a whistleblower who did not succeed, yet made money by writing a book. The people on whose behalf Markopolos professes to have acted are Madoff’s unfortunate clients, mostly rich institutional and private investors who consistently earned above-market returns and then claimed exorbitant losses. Rounding out the documentary’s interviewees are know-it-all buddies of Markopolos, fellow Wall Street types who dubbed themselves “the foxhounds.” It is a problematic cast of characters for average American viewers who, if they have any portfolio at all, invest modestly, hoping for a return consistent with the market. No sympathy there. Markopolos claims he untangled the Gordian knot that held together Madoff’s financial empire in “five minutes,” and detailed these findings in his multiple reports to the SEC. Chasing Madoff takes ninety-one minutes and delivers nothing more than what it hopes to pass off as the story of an unsung, working-class hero.
Maria Garcia is a New York City-based writer.
Copyright © 2011 by Cineaste Magazine.