While debating the merits of going to see Labor Day Weekend multiplex fare consisting of “Our Idiot Brother” verses “Apollo 18,” I hit upon “Chasing Madoff,” a new documentary playing at City Cinemas Village East, 181 Second Avenue, in New York. The film was playing downstairs in the multiplex’s Theater 5, a small theatre equipped with a postage stamp sized screen. Fortunately the small screen size did not prevent me from enjoying (if “enjoying” is the appropriate word) this giant, fascinating and exceptionally well made documentary about Bernie Madoff, a subject already well covered in the media.
What makes “Chasing Madoff” unique is that the story is told from the point of view of Harry Markopolos, a securities analyst in Boston who began sending warnings ten years before Madoff’s now infamous Ponzi scheme came crashing down. After reviewing one of Madoff’s marketing documents, it took Markopolos all of five minutes to see that something was very wrong. He was joined in his ensuing investigation by his partners, and fellow whistleblowers, Frank Casey, Neil Chello, and later, by writer Michael Ocrant.
Much like Cassandra, of Greek mythology, who could predict the future, but whose predictions were not believed, nobody would listen to Markopolos’ claims. The SEC (Securities and Exchange Commission) did not investigate Markopolos’ evidence, and “The Wall Street Journal” “killed” an article about his findings. In fact, “Chasing Madoff” is based on the best selling book, “Nobody Would Listen.” “I was like the boy who cried wolf…but there was a wolf,” Markopolos explains in one of his many candid comments about his experience. Markopolos is interviewed extensively, as are other participants in his investigation.
While one could get a little confused by the film’s “financial speak,” what really makes “Chasing Madoff” cook is its terrific visual style, very much influenced by the work of documentarian Errol Morris. Director Jeff Prosserman, cinematograoher Julian Van Mil and editors Jeff Besner and Garry Tutte, have created a visually compelling, well paced story that utilizes interviews, stock footage, re-enactments and news footage, all beautifully integrated to tell the incredible account of how Markopolos, at great personal risk, pieced together what was happening. “We weren’t even the last line of defense. We were the only line,” Markopolos explains.
Markopolos’ frustrated efforts at getting those who were supposed to be protecting investors to listen to him are truly heartbreaking, as are the testimonies of ordinary people, identified by their Madoff customer account numbers, whose finances were wiped out. Footage of Congressman Gary Ackerman repeatedly excoriating SEC Enforcement Chief Linda Tomsen, during a hearing, provides some satisfaction, but Markopolos puts it best when he tells Congress that “The SEC roars like a mouse and bites like a flea.”
“Chasing Madoff” is an important film that will take its place with other fine documentaries about contemporary financial scams, such as “Inside Job” (2010) and “American Casino” (2009). “Chasing Madoff” should not be left in the tiny, subterranean Theatre Five, but brought up to the light of day.
“Chasing Madoff,” director Jeff Prosserman, 2011,
Entertainment One, 91 minutes, not rated