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Book/Film Thoughts: Wizard of Lies

Monday, October 2, 2017

October 2,  2017

"If he was an evil wizard, his power was vastly enhanced by the fact that we all moved into the castle with him." - Diana B. Henriques, The Wizard of Lies

Is being a liar a blessing or a curse?

For financier Bernie Madoff, it is both. 65 Billion Dollars. That is how much money Madoff swindled out of the people in his life. His friends, his family, and a whole lot of Wall Street investors. Why? Well that is what Diana B. Henriques explores in her biography of the man who pulled off the biggest Ponzi scheme in history. 


For this review I will be recounting my reaction for both the biography and the HBO film The Wizard of Lies (available on DVD/Blu-Ray October 3rd) . The lovely people over at HBO were kind enough to send me over both to enjoy and boy has it been a whirlwind. 

I must admit, I do not follow politics or economics or really anything about Wall Street. Everyone has heard the phrase"Ponzi scheme", but not everyone knows what it means, at least I didn't. I remember hearing Madoff's name in the news, but I never really understood what was going on. That is until I dived into this biography and the film and a lot came to light. Both the book and the film focus not only on the crime itself, but the effect it had on the lives of Madoff's family and how everything came crashing down as the scam came to an end.

Courtesy of  HBO Entertainment 
Henriques starts the novel out by describing the desolate prison in which Madoff is being held, a correctional facility in Butner, North Carolina. She explains the solitary stark hallways and how for that day, they are wiped clean of the bustling visitors and noisy inmates. Henriques reveals that Madoff has finally agreed to sit and talk to her, tell his story. Now that is all good and great, but as a professional liar, why would you believe anything he says? Still, Henriques listens and asks her own questions. The only issue I had with the biography was all the financial speak. If you are not familiar with that type of jargon then you will have a hard time following the exact details. In my whole life, I have had half a semester on Economics and how the Market works so Google came in handy a lot as I delved deeper in this story.

A lot of research went into the novel as Henriques grappled for the truth, but the most important question? Not why he did it or what he hope to gain other than money, but who else knew? That seemed to be the biggest theme for both the book and the film. Did his sons really not know anything? How much did his wife Ruth know? And how he go undetected for so many years? The most shocking detail for me was that the SEC had investigated the firm before, but didn't find anything which led to more money being swindled. Throughout the book, Henriques questions how much truth she is receiving. More and more research is done and yet more and more gaping holes are revealed.

Now the film was excellent. I think that if you are unfamiliar with the financial world, seeing it visually will be a better choice. I personally enjoyed the film much more than the book. I am a visual learner and that is what this was, a lesson on the Market and how corrupt it can become. The film, much like the book, follows the scandal from the months before December 2008, the time Madoff was to turn himself in. 

Courtesy of  HBO Entertainment 
There is an ominous feel at the start with strong introductions of all players in the story. I felt as if the film brought in more of Madoff the Man rather than just Madoff the Swindler. The personal accounts of his wife, Ruth and sons, Andrew and Mark showed there was still a bit of humanity left in the sociopathic mind of Madoff, but perhaps not enough. 

The film explores how over time, especially near the end, Madoff started to break. He became overwhelmed and emotional causing angry outbursts against his family. He became overworked and any small issue tended to set him off. The entire scheme took a toll on his family. After the arrest, it was a domino effect. One bad thing after another. Whether it was the disclosed suicide attempt by Madoff and Ruth or how Mark and Andrew Madoff were harassed for information, it was all tumbling down. 

The announcement of the victims and how they dealt with the fallout of the Ponzi scheme was done well. The montage with the black and white imagery set the hopeless tone very well. One of the best sequences in the film would be the dream Madoff has while on the overdose high. The metaphors were plenty and each appeared to Madoff in a way that would not only hit him from a business perspective, but a personal one as well. 

I give the book 3/5 stars and the film 5/5 stars. Robert De Niro and Michelle Pfeiffer were outstanding in their roles as Bernie and Ruth Madoff. If you have been interested in this famous Ponzi scheme, I highly recommend reading and watching The Wizard of Lies. If you are like me and have zero knowledge of the Market, then the film is for you! If you want more of a research approach, then the biography is for you! It is a story for generations to come. 

In the end, many questions remained. Did his family actually know what was happening? Did Ruth suspect? My biggest questions are still: Why then? Why did it take him until December of 2008 to realize what he was doing was wrong? Why not during the previous fifteen years? What changed? And how much of this personal account is the truth? Did we finally get all the information or did we once again fall under the spell of the Wizard of Lies?

Stay Sharp

- Haley

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