A Ponzi scheme cost Judge Gordon Sullivan all forty-seven cents of his retirement fund.
Unfortunately, based on a true story.
The historical changes in confidence games are really fascinating. For instance, it's really hard to pull off a con these days that involves a horse, whereas a Nigerian prince con could not have happened as it does now before the age of ubiquitous electronic transaction (and it says something about our age that it's still called "wire fraud"). However, as fascinating as the historical variations in cons are, what they really tell us is that there are only so many basic ways to part a fool and his money. One of the most durable is the Ponzi scheme. The basic idea of the Ponzi scheme is that a person gets the marks to invest in a company that doesn't really do anything (or it does something nominal). These marks are then paid a huge return on their investment (either from some initial money the conman set aside, or from their own investments). The marks (or the conman) publicize this huge return, attracting more marks. The new marks pay off the old marks, who in turn need to attract even newer marks to keep things running. Either the scheme runs out of marks and collapses, or authorities get wind of it and shut it down. It sounds like something out of fiction—I mean how could people not know they were involved in a scheme like this?—but the collapse of Bernie Madoff's empire documented in Chasing Madoff demonstrates that the Ponzi scheme is alive and well.
Facts of the Case
A blind monkey could make money on the stock market. Okay, not really, but a solidly conservative portfolio that doesn't chase trends (combined with the general upward economic trends of the past hundred years) means that it's fairly easy to see a modest (i.e., 1%) return on stock market investments. Bernie Madoff was offering his clients upwards of a 19% return, and because he started out by bilking foreign investors before expanding his empire to include first America's richest, then its upper middle class, he managed to rack up $52 billion(!) worth of fraudulent investments. Then, the 2008 economic crisis hit, and suddenly Madoff was exposed for running what is almost certainly the largest Ponzi scheme in history. As investors pulled their money out, Madoff couldn't keep enough cash on hand to pay out what he promised. The feds circled in, and off to jail he went, taking many people's fortunes with him.
If you were following the news at all in 2008 and 2009 this story should seem pretty familiar: the bad guy got caught and regrettably took a lot of decent people with him. If that's what Chasing Madoff were about, it'd be a boring movie. No, this tells the other side of the story (and is based on Markopolos' book No One Would Listen). Sure, it was the "accident" of the 2008 downturn combined with federal oversight that caught Madoff, but his fraud was known to at least some for about ten years.
At the center of Chasing Madoff is Harry Markopolos. He was part of a team assigned the task of piggybacking on Madoff's investment strategy so it could be used by others. He discovered what should have been blindly obvious to anyone looking at 19% ROI: it's impossible to deliver those kinds of returns to that many people for that long in a legal manner. Of course, Markopolos did the right thing and ran his findings up the chain of command, all the way to the big dogs, the Securities and Exchange Commission. At every step, he was given the run around. Stories about Madoff's fraud are rejected, the Feds refuse to take legal action, and Wall Street insiders don't want to go on record as killing the goose that was (at the time) laying golden eggs. Some objectors were well-intentioned—after all, exposing billions of dollars' worth of fraud would have serious impact on the world economy—while others were more self-serving.
Using a combination of interviews, archival footage, and the occasional reenactment, Chasing Madoff follows Markopolos and his crew from their initial suspicion to the aftermath of Madoff's downfall. Though most audience members' eyes would glaze over in a second if they had to deal with the raw data of Madoff's empire of fraud, filmmaker Jeff Prosserman gives this the thriller treatment. There are good guys (Markopolos) and bad guys (Madoff), sudden reversals, and the eventual triumph of good over evil. Even those who normally don't like documentaries will appreciate the tight construction and informative presentation.
Chasing Madoff also gets a solid Blu-ray release. The 1.78:1/1080p AVC-encoded high definition transfer looks good. This isn't a high-budget film, and much of the source appears to be contemporary video. Expect decent amounts of detail, solid colors, and consistent (though not deep) black levels. It's not a disc to show off a home theater setup, but it serves the material well. Similar, the DTS-HD 5.1 track gets the all-important dialogue right, though there aren't many opportunities for the surrounds to provide atmosphere. Extras start with a solid commentary from director Prosserman detailing his involvement with the project and the challenges along the way. We also get some deleted scenes, and an alternate ending.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
Chasing Madoff is a fine film, but those thoroughly opposed to documentaries might still object to its presentation, especially the occasional reenactments. It's a film that would probably suffer in comparison to the reigning champion of corporate fraud documentaries, Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room.
Chasing Madoff is exactly the kind of film that needs to be seen by pretty much everyone. Though many will not enjoy it, seeing the extent to which our government is incapable of protecting its citizens from fraud will give some pause to those on both sides of the aisle. It's also a good inroad to understanding some of the causes behind the 2008 financial "meltdown." This Blu-ray does a fine job presenting the film, making it easy to recommend as a rental for the curious or a purchase for fans.
Unlike Madoff, Not Guilty.
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