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REVIEW: HBO’s ‘The Wizard of Lies’ Shows Empathy But Not Forgiveness

On December 10, 2008, Bernard “Bernie” Madoff was turned into authorities by his two sons, Mark and Andrew, for fraud and operating the biggest ponzi scheme to-date. Bernard L. Madoff Investment Securities LLC was formed by Madoff in 1960 and grew into one of the top market marker businesses on Wall Street — an investment firm that made the filthy rich into the stinking rich. It was a Ponzi scheme that went on for years — decades, even — without Ruth Madoff, Bernie’s wife, Mark, Andrew or Peter, Madoff’s brother, knowing — three of which worked at Madoff Investment Securities.

Since his arrest in 2008, Bernie has since been living his 150 year prison sentence and has received very few visitors, one being Diana B. Henriques, a former New York Times journalist who took a keen interest in the Madoff fraud case and authored The Wizard of Lies: Bernie Madoff and the Death of Trust. Now, six years since it was published, HBO and Barry Levinson (Rain Man) have teamed up to bring the real-life white collar crime story to the small screen.

Based on the trailers alone, The Wizard of Lies couples Hollywood heavyweights, like Robert De Niro as Bernie Madoff, Michelle Pfeiffer as Ruth Madoff and Hank Azaria as Frank DiPascali, with the shocking and compelling story of how someone could swindle of billions of dollars for years without his family or the SEC ever catching on, but that’s not what the new HBO film focuses on. Instead, we spend two hours examining the backlash the family faced because of Bernie’s actions rather than how they ended up lepers of New York City’s high class.

The media portrayed the Madoff family as all being involved in the scheme, something The Wizard of Lies positions as a falsehood. After the news broke of all the money stolen by Bernie, Ruth was turned away from her friends, neighbors and even her hairdresser, but she stood by her husband of 50 years regardless, even when her two sons quit talking to her because of her loyalty. It wasn’t until her Mark, the eldest son, committed suicide two years to the day of his father’s arrest that she shut off all communication with Bernie in an effort to keep a relationship with Andrew, her only remaining son.

The film assumes the viewer has a basic knowledge of how the Madoff reveal and the 2008 market crash played out and influenced each other, and spends its time shining a light on the behind-the-scenes of how his family was torn apart. It’s a victim’s tale that’s hard to connect to — who cares if an extremely wealthy family lost all their money and had to live normal lives because the patriarch was too greedy? But, through the authentic performances from Alessandro Nivole as Mark, Nathan Darrow as Andrew, Lily Rabe as Andrew’s girlfriend, Catherine, and Kristen Connolly as Stephanie, Mark’s Wife, in addition to Pfeiffer and De Niro, there is the chance to find empathy with what they went through without ever forgiving what Bernie did — at times I found myself forgetting I was watching De Niro and not Bernie himself.

The Wizard of Lies premiere Saturday, May 20 at 8pm ET on HBO.