Category Archives: Bernie Madoff

The Puzzle of Bernie Madoff



Robert DeNiro as Bernie Madoff

Last night I watched The Wizard of Lies, the story of the Bernie Madoff disaster. It may sound cold, but I never could work up all that much sympathy for Madoff’s victims. Even a dumb guy like me knows that you don’t give your life savings to one person. I thought of the words “caveat emptor, which the dictionary defines as “a principle in commerce: without a warranty the buyer takes the risk.” In other words, buyer beware.

Those who lost their life savings with Madoff could only have been motivated by a reckless greed inspired by the phony performance of his fund which only went up, never down. You would think that any sentient person would know that something that defies the laws of gravity is obviously too good to be true, but the victims were obviously blinded by the belief that they were getting rich (or richer) quickly and easily. The movie wisely concentrates on Madoff and his family rather than “the victims” of Madoff’s Ponzi scheme.

The question that Wizard of Lies poses is: What kind of man would place his family in such moral and legal jeopardy? And what a horrible price Madoff’s wife, sons (and their wives and children) paid for his crime, and I don’t mean the loss of their wealth. To be sure, Madoff was insatiably greedy, sociopathic, psychopathic and whatever other mental illnesses you could ascribe to him. But it is the total disregard for his family that is so remarkable and disturbing.

Robert DeNiro, who plays Madoff, does not try to imitate him by using “Jewish” mannerisms as, say, Dustin Hoffman might have done. De Niro is recognizable as the big city Italian he is, but it doesn’t matter, for he skillfully portrays Madoff’s maddening lack of self-awareness, his astounding egotism, and his total unconcern for the lives others.

Madoff obliterated the self-worth of his sons and his wife by insisting that they be totally dependent on him, so when the storm hit, they were emotionally helpless to deal with it. Eventually, Madoff’s wife and one of his sons came to understand who the real Bernie Madoff was, and they broke off all relations with him. This allowed them to go on with their crippled lives with a modicum of dignity.

In the end, Wizard of Lies doesn’t come up with an answer to the question it poses that is commensurate with the enormity of Madoff’s willing destruction of his family. In the last scene, a reporter who is interviewing Madoff points out to him that if he had died before his Ponzi scheme was exposed, his sons would have been the ones in prison for the crimes of their father. Madoff quickly dispenses with the reporter’s argument by speculating that they would have been acquitted anyway. Then the camera closes in on DeNiro’s impassive face as he says: Let me ask you a question. Do you think I’m a sociopath?

So, we are left with the understanding that Madoff couldn’t have cared less about his wife and sons. It was all about him. Madoff’s story is like a Greek or Shakespearean tragedy, but it is impossible to think of Bernie Madoff as the tragic hero.