Picture this: A story about an evil businessman who steals billions of dollars from innocent hardworking people. A story about a small group of people dedicated to bringing him down, no matter what the cost. It doesn’t stop there either; the heroes have to contend with corrupt governmental organizations and the crooked politicians that run it. Sounds like a pretty good movie right? Well too bad. It’s actually the true story behind Chasing Madoff, the stranger-than-fiction documentary about the world’s biggest Ponzi schemer. Chasing Madoff is an incredible, scarcely believable story in a documentary not without its flaws. But even with some offbeat moments, it truly is a story you have to see to believe.
Chasing Madoff is about financial analyst-turned-fraud-investigator Harry Markopolos and his attempts to prove to the financial world that Bernard Madoff’s investment firm was, in fact, a massive con. However, Markopolos’ quest to bring Madoff to justice is almost as hard to believe as the scam itself. Over the span of ten years, Harry Markopolos and a small group of trusted peers had amassed irrefutable proof that Madoff Investment Securities was stealing from its investors, dissolving charities, and allegedly bribing people to keep the fraud running. Despite Markopolos’ seemingly airtight case, the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission would not take action against Madoff. Months turn to years for Markopolos, and the film focuses not only on his struggle to bring one of the worst white collar criminals in history to justice, but also his mounting fears for his own wellbeing and that of his family.
No doubt about it, the Madoff investment scandal is utterly fascinating and one of the most heinous crimes in American history. The amount of money that was involved is staggering, and the odds that Markopolos faced to bring him to justice were insurmountable. Bernie Madoff comes off as a real world Lex Luthor, a guy who might as well be twisting his mustache and cackling as he stares at his offshore bank statements. It is here that Chasing Madoff exhibits both its greatest strength and biggest weakness. Chasing Madoff frequently relies on questionable reenactments and gimmicky visuals to tell its story. Important moments are retold by the actual people involved, either Harry or one of his friends. Sadly, their hammy acting can really take audiences out of the moment. Harry Markopolos has no problems expressing his emotion during his camera interviews, but his reenactments would feel out of place in an episode of Unsolved Mysteries. Frank Casey, one of Markopolos’ allies, suffers from this direction as well. His resolve, anger, and determination are front and center during his interview segments, and fade away whenever the scene shifts to footage of him mixing a cocktail in the kitchen and pretending to talk on the phone.
Other aesthetic choices do a disservice to the film as well. During the interview segments the participants zoom around on screen, as a postproduction effect attempts to create camera moves. It’s an off-putting choice and deters from the dramatic impact that these people generate when talking about such an incredible, true event. Markopolos frequently talks about his fear regarding his family and how he found it necessary at times to keep a loaded firearm around. While this is a definite indicator of the desperate state of Markopolos’ investigation, grainy black and white scenes showing Harry loading and posing with a pump action shotgun cheapen the impact.
Despite these criticisms Chasing Madoff is still a good documentary about an incredible story. When the documentary is actually focusing on the facts of the case, presenting the audience with the evidence and immensity of Madoff’s deception, it’s as riveting as any fictional thriller audiences can imagine. For ten long years Harry Markopolos tried to save people’s livelihoods. Chasing Madoff and Markopolos himself pull zero punches when it comes to talking about the impotence of the SEC during the whole ordeal as well, and watching all of these crooks put in the crucible is satisfying.
Chasing Madoff makes some questionable stylistic choices, but nonetheless presents an uncompromising look at the Madoff Scandal and the responsible parties involved. Those even remotely interested in who Bernie Madoff was, the amount of money at play, and the unsung heroes who took him down will certainly enjoy this documentary. Perhaps its greatest accomplishment is reminding audiences that you don’t always have to go see a movie to find a great villain – sometimes you can just read the newspaper.