Media columnist David Zurawik talks about the new HBO film "The Wizard of Lies," a drama about the Bernie Madoff scandal, that will premiere at the Maryland Film Festival Thursday, ahead of the HBO debut later in May. (Ulysses Muñoz / Baltimore Sun)
When critics talk about this being a golden age of TV drama, they are referring to series like "Game of Thrones" or "House of Cards."
But after seeing Oprah Winfrey in HBO's "The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks" last week and now previewing Robert De Niro in HBO's "The Wizard of Lies," it is starting to feel as if this might be a golden age of made-for-TV movies as well.
From daring direction by Barry Levinson, to De Niro's mesmerizing performance as disgraced financier Bernie Madoff, "The Wizard of Lies," which premieres at the Maryland Film Festival Thursday in advance of its May 20 HBO debut, is another grand-slam docudrama from TV's premier cable channel.
I have long admired De Niro and Levinson, but in recent years, I have to admit to taking a critical pass on some of their work. With Levinson, it mostly involved TV series he produced, like "The Bedford Diaries" (2006). With De Niro, there were movies like "Dirty Grandpa" (2016).
At 75 and 73, respectively, Levinson and De Niro certainly earned some critical kindness given their long careers of Academy-Award-winning work. But I need give them no quarter for age or past glories on "The Wizard of Lies." It stands on its own excellence as a compelling exploration of one of the most enigmatic sociopaths of our time.
For those not so familiar with Madoff, who is now serving a prison sentence of 150 years, his investment firm was thought to be worth $50 billion. But what the former chairman of NASDAQ had really built was one of the largest financial frauds in U.S. history.
"It's all one big, fat [expletive] lie,' De Niro's Madoff says in the film as his swindle is about to come undone in the face of nervous investors scrambling to get their money out during the Wall Street meltdown of 2008. "There are no investments. I made them all up. They're all fake."
The degree to which he bilked investors who trusted him is perhaps best suggested by the case of Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel and his wife, Marion, who lost their life savings as well as $15.2 million from a foundationthey had founded. Many elderly clients were totally wiped out financially by Madoff's epic scam.
One investor is shown slitting his wrists with a box cutter over a wastebasket so as not to make too big a mess with his suicide.
De Niro doesn't play Madoff as a non-stop raging monster the way, say, Al Pacino played attorney Roy Cohn in HBO's "Angels in America." With De Niro, the performance is much more internal and cerebral. A twitch of his eye, a cocking of his head or a pursing of his lips into a sour expression can be as powerful and even menacing as another actor issuing a threat at the top of his lungs.
But for that to work, the director has to put the camera right in the star's face and never back off. The dance between the Levinson's camera and De Niro's face is everything.
De Niro's visage is movie-star iconic, and Levinson knows just what to do with it — just the way he did with Robert Redford's face in "The Natural" or Warren Beatty's in "Bugsy."
The camera settles in on a close-up, and that is the center of the film universe. As old-school Hollywood as it might be in terms of style, it is perfect for the subject matter of this film.
Madoff was not just the center of his family and the fraudulent $50 billion investment business, he was the Alpha and Omega. He held all the power and secrets and shared none of then with his wife and sons. Everything and everyone fed off his autocratic power and was affected by his moods. When De Niro's Madoff becomes angry, you can almost feel the fear of family and employes through the screen.
The best stretch of the film comes during the near-crash of the economy during the fall of 2008 — just as Barack Obama was about to become president.
Madoff is scrambling to bring in new investors so that he has cash to pay back some of the longtime clients who are screaming to get out.
As a drummer lays down a jazzy, throbbing, jungle-drum beat, suggesting the mounting pressure Madoff is feeling and the cascade of bad news flowing through the larger economy, Levinson's camera zeroes in on Madoff and a potential investor at a party in Palm Beach.
The action is all in De Niro's face as his Madoff takes the client from an investment of $100 million to $400 million with very few words. A squint, a slight shake of the head, a tight little smile, and the deal is made.
But it's not nearly enough money to keep the house of cards from collapsing.
As the economy edges closer to the cliff and the demands to get out of his fund grow louder, Madoff sits down for a family dinner with his wife, Ruth, and the families of his two sons, Andrew and Mark.
"Do you read Barron's? Do you read The Wall Street Journal?" he demands of the girl.
"I gotta get grilled by this kid," Madoff angrily continues as family members look on apprehensively. "I got so many other [expletive] things to worry about on Wall Street, and this kid's saying how bad it is."
By the time he tells Emily in a loud voice to "shut up and eat your food," she's in tears in her grandmother's arms, and everyone else at the table appears to be in a state of shock.
Levinson, who has a special touch with scenes involving food (think "Diner"), paces the scene so that the viewer feels the full power of the explosion — further amplified because it is directed toward the little girl.
A grandchild's voice is again heard calling out to Madoff during a nightmare sequence in a suicide attempt via Ambien by the financier and his wife.
Levinson gets to show some real directorial derring-do here with a soundtrack featuring Judy Garland, banks of computer screens burning like the fires of hell, a blizzard of camera flashes cameras blinding Madoff as an angry investor calls, "Have you no shame? No remorse? Have you decency? You rob from widows. You steal from charities. You rob from Elie Wiesel, a Holocaust survivor. You steal from your own people."
It is a big sequence, and Levinson delivers. He comes through again in an even more challenging scene: the discovery of the body of Madoff's son, Mark, after he hangs himself.
But just as impressive as these big moments are the care and attention to little turns and touches throughout the film.
One oceanfront scene during a lavish family celebration ends on a shot of the tide rolling up on the beach at late at night.
The next scene opens on rolls of barbed wire along the top of the prison walls where Madoff finds himself after his fall.
Beyond the work of Levinson and De Niro, there are strong supporting performances by Michelle Pfeiffer as Ruth Madoff and Hank Azaria as Frank DiPascali, the longtime Madoff employe who ran the Ponzi scheme on a day-to-day basis. You can count on hearing Azaria's name at Emmy time.
"The Wizard of Lies" doesn't try to explain Madoff's behavior or take viewers inside his mind.
The film ends with the convicted financier trying to turn the tables on a interviewer and saying, "Let me ask you a question: Do you think I'm a sociopath?"
No easy answers here. I commend "The Wizard of Lies" for that.