Behind bars for the rest of his life, dead to his family, hated by hundreds upon hundreds of victims, Robert De Niro’s Bernie Madoff is still in semi-denial, still defending himself on some level — still incapable of being completely honest with himself or with the journalist across the table from him.
“Let me ask you a question,” he says. “Do YOU think I’m a sociopath?”
We don’t hear an answer. The lens zooms in for an extreme close-up. De Niro/Madoff’s eyes fix on the journalist, and then dart this way and that, ever so slightly. It’s as if Bernie is fighting with all his might from the inside to keep a poker face, and he can’t quite do it.
What an effective piece of acting from the great De Niro — who, let’s be honest, hasn’t always come across in later years as if he’s giving the full effort to certain roles.
Much of De Niro’s performance in the HBO original film “The Wizard of Lies” is in close-up, as if the veteran and accomplished director Barry Levinson (“Rain Man,” “Diner,” “Wag the Dog”) is almost daring De Niro to phone it in.
He doesn’t. Not for a second. It’s finely calibrated acting from one of the all-time best.
Based on the book by Diana B. Henriques (who plays herself – quite well — and is in fact the journalist across the table from Madoff in the aforementioned scene), “The Wizard of Lies” is overlong and repetitive in some stretches, but thanks to De Niro’s fine work, Levinson’s steady direction and the rich, tragic, complex, real-life source material, this is a strong and engrossing piece of filmmaking.
The filmmaker doesn’t indulge in “The Wolf of Wall Street” or “The Big Short” stylistic flashes to explain the intricacies of Madoff’s breathtakingly enormous Ponzi scheme, reportedly the largest fraud of its kind in U.S. history. This is more about Madoff’s unsettlingly quiet, borderline creepy demeanor, his off-the-charts narcissism, his pathological inability to tell the truth — and the devastating effects the scandal had not only on Madoff’s victims, but on his wife, his sons and their families, all of whom are given mostly sympathetic treatment here. (We do get a glimpse into how Madoff worked his clients in flashback scenes.)
The journalist Henriques tries to dig deep into Madoff’s core, to find some semblance of true regret, something resembling a conscience. Madoff reminds her he warned his clients not to put ALL of their savings into his hands, “because you never know what might happen.”
Right. Like your most trusted adviser taking every last dime you ever sweated for, and never looking back.
Michelle Pfeiffer plays Madoff’s wife Ruth, and as much as I admire so much of what Pfeiffer has done in her career, I found much of her performance distracting, mostly due to a wildly over-the-top accent that sounds as if it was lifted directly from “Married to the Mob.” Still, Pfeiffer manages to make us feel sorry for Ruth, who lost both of her sons (one to cancer, one to suicide) in the years after the scandal, and finally stopped visiting Bernie in prison. A scene in which Ruth drives a Meals on Wheels van and ignores Bernie’s repeated calls probably won’t elicit much sympathy from the many, many families that were wiped out by Madoff’s greed and utter disregard for humanity — but it comes across as authentic and sad.
De Niro’s fellow Academy Award winner Richard Dreyfuss went for a bigger, showier, flashier performance in last year’s ABC-TV movie “Madoff.”
Perhaps certain pieces of Madoff’s true nature can be found in both portrayals. Neither actor did him any favors, nor does he deserve any.
HBO Films presents a film directed by Barry Levinson and written by Sam Levinson, John Burnham Schwartz and Samuel Baum, based on Diana B. Henriques’ book “The Wizard of Lies: Bernie Madoff and the Death of Trust.” Running time: 133 minutes. Premieres at 7 p.m. Saturday on HBO.