Leading up to Saturday evening was the HBO bio-pic I’ve been waiting for since I was 26 (I am now 34) — Wizard of Lies, which was broadcasted on May 20, 2017.
To most people, Wall Street is some far away place that is known through Hollywood movies, and Bernie Madoff is a bad guy who stole people’s money — maybe some sort of high-tech bank robber who did it on his computer at home, in his underwear? Outside of New York City, most people have no idea who Madoff is and what he did exactly. He’s as real as Michael Douglas in Wall Street is… many people don’t even know it’s a bio-pic and not just another scripted drama.
To us in New York City, he was not only real, but was probably a huge part of the 2008 financial crisis that hit Wall Street and spread to the rest of the country and eventually the world. The Wizard of Lies is directed by Barry Levinson and based on the book by The New York Times reporter Diana Henriques. The film stars Robert De Niro as Bernard Madoff and Michelle Pfeiffer as his wife Ruth Madoff. (I have to give credit to the makeup artists for the amazing resemblance of both actors to the real Bernie and Ruth.)
On December 10, 2008, I had just turned 26 and was preparing for the Christmas holiday and a New Year’s vacation to Hawaii in January — the same time Sully landed in the Hudson. Madoff’s sons had just told authorities that their father had confessed to them a massive Ponzi scheme. (Up to this point, I had no idea what a Ponzi scheme even was.) The following day, FBI agents arrested Madoff and charged him with securities fraud. The U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) had previously conducted multiple investigations into Madoff’s business practices, but never uncovered the humongous fraud.
On March 12, 2009, Madoff pleaded guilty to 11 federal felonies. The Madoff scheme screwed investors out of billions of dollars, some of the victims were even as famous and respected as Holocaust survivor, Elie Wiesel, who personally lost his own life savings and had millions stolen from his charity, and superstar celebrities like Kevin Bacon and his wife.
I remember the massive lay-offs and firings, company mergers, mortgage rates and foreclosures in 2008; it was felt all over the country — all over the world, even — but it was felt especially in New York City, the home of Wall Street and that ugly bronze charging bull. People were desperate for a paycheck. College grads couldn’t find careers and ended up working retail jobs. Young adult kids were living at home and reluctant to move out or get married. Everything was going down except for the military; there was a surge in military jobs, and Bin Laden was still alive.
On June 29, 2009, Madoff was sentenced to 150 years in prison, the maximum allowed for the 11 felonies including securities fraud, wire fraud, mail fraud, money laundering, making false statements, perjury, theft from an employee benefit plan and making false filings with the SEC. The plea was to a criminal complaint filed two days earlier, which stated that over the past 20 years, Madoff had defrauded his clients of almost $65 billion in the largest Ponzi scheme in history. Madoff insisted he was solely responsible for the fraud, especially that his wife and sons were unaware. Madoff did not ask for a plea bargain with the government; instead he pleaded guilty to all charges.
The movie was very sympathetic to the sons. I felt sorry for them, especially watching the scene where Mark is up at night reading social media posts about the family — the very core of cyber bullying, it can (and has) led to many suicides. He killed himself exactly two years from the date that his father’s scam came to light, on December 11, 2010. Suicide by hanging is a real desire for death because it’s not a quick method, and it’s actually quite painful before you even get to die. Both sons died relatively young, in their forties; Andrew died from lymphoma in 2014.
Despite how sympathetic the movie was to the sons, I was still skeptical of their blissful ignorance of the scam… until about fifteen minutes left of the movie. The final scene where Henriques says to Bernie that either his sons knew, or that he was willing for his sons to go to jail for his crimes, and asks him which one is it? This really is the turning point, he was willing to betray his own sons for the rich life. Money is the root of all evil.
In his plea allocution, Madoff stated he began his Ponzi scheme in 1991. He admitted he had never made any legitimate investments with his clients’ money during this time. Instead he simply deposited the money into his personal business account at Chase Manhattan Bank.
When his customers asked for withdrawals, he paid them out of the Chase account. Chase and its successor, JPMorgan Chase, may have earned as much as $483 million from his bank account. His clients had expectations of high returns, despite an economic recession. In the end, Madoff said, he realized that his scam would eventually be exposed.
Madoff was one of the reasons President Obama passed Dodd-Frank. Trump’s core supporters have no idea that getting rid of this protection wasn’t a good thing, or that it was even a consumer protection act; they believed the businessman when he sold them a lie, just like Madoff was able to sell lies to thousands of clients. Blue-collar workers without college degrees in rural states do not know who or what Goldman-Sachs is — or that they’re currently all occupying positions in the Trump administration.
The movie showed Ruth Madoff as being willingly ignorant. I compared it to the mob movies where the wife doesn’t ask questions, where she knows something is amiss, but doesn’t really care because she likes the life of luxury. I believe Ruth genuinely did not know because she chose not to know, but that she also didn’t want to give up lobster dinners and her penthouse in Manhattan. I can understand it. Really, I can.
See, I have my money in a shoe box, while my guy has his money in Wall Street; and while my money in the shoe box is my money, his money is my money too, but I don’t mess with his finances. I basically said to him, when you die, just leave me a binder with the info. Oh, I’m not a careless spender, the opposite, I’m frugal and borderline stingy; but I have no idea what he does with his money — I’m not even sure what he does at work!
There’s been two movies made on Madoff already, The Wizard of Lies has an all-star cast and the script is incredible. It does not make any excuses for Madoff and goes further to explore the family betrayal, especially to his sons. Like the biblical passage says, the son must carry the sins of the father.