The TV movie is a bit of a dying form. When I was a kid, there were new made-for-television movies every week on every network, though admittedly, they were usually at least a couple of steps down in quality from what you’d look for in the theater. As the quantity of these productions has declined, the quality has proportionally risen, to the point where we have TV movies starring the likes of Robert De Niro and Michelle Pfeiffer (both of whom are nominated for Emmys), and directed by Barry Levinson.
The Wizard of Lies tells the story of Bernie Madoff, the financial guru who ran a 15-year scan that became the biggest Ponzi scheme in history and resulted in the loss of 60 billion dollars of his investors’ money, in many cases their entire life savings. De Niro, whose career has taken a very odd turn in recent years from Scorsese dramas to comedies like Meet the Parents and Dirty Grandpa, goes back to his roots, playing Madoff as a mostly humorless, slightly lecherous, extremely uptight and controlling man who despite having become fabulously wealthy and respected as one of the top financial advisers in the world, still sees himself as an up-from-the-bootstraps striver with a frequently stated contempt for the “rigged system.” It’s a great performance, quiet and controlled; De Niro shows the deep denial that allowed Madoff to believe not only that he was not putting his sons, who worked at his firm, in legal jeopardy, but that the people he was bilking on some level deserved it, rationalizing that they gave him more money than he advised was prudent and asked so few questions, that they were obviously victims not just of him but of their own greed. (In one telling scene, an investor wants into Bernie’s fund for $100 million, and Bernie refuses to let him in until the guy ups his offer again and again before finally pledging $400 million.)
As Ruth, Madoff’s wife of 50 years, Michelle Pfeiffer reminds us why, even in the midst of a long hiatus from the spotlight, she is still getting namechecked as “white gold” in song. This performance could easily have been all about Ruth’s nasal, abrasive New York accent, but through that voice Pfeiffer manages to convey Ruth’s quiet desperation on learning that her husband is a criminal and that worse, she couldn’t leave him even if she wanted to (which is probably why she doesn’t want to): she has been married to an extremely rich man and lived the life of the 1% for so many years, she has no skills, no career, no friends of her own to fall back on. (On a personal note, I am particuarly rooting for Pfeiffer because she has always been my favorite actress and it’s great to have her back; as a kid, I watched Grease 2 when it was on heavy HBO rotation for one reason and one reason only, and it wasn’t Adrian Zmed.)
Expertly directed, gripping, and both tough and surprisingly sympathetic to Madoff, The Wizard of Lies isn’t just the best TV movie I’ve seen this year, it’s one of the best movies I’ve seen this year period.
The Wizard of Lies is available on-demand on HBO.