Visually dynamic, ‘Chasing Madoff’ documentary follows 10-year investigation

Harry Markopolos provides testimony during a Senate Banking Committee hearing regarding the Bernard Madoff scandal on September 10, 2009. Photo: Nico Doldinger

By Cate Marquis, Special to the Jewish Light

“Chasing Madoff” begins with images of blood and money set to eerie music and the words “unfortunately, a true story.” The opening sets a tone of mystery about the investigation into the Bernie Madoff investment group, a compelling true story that uncovers failures of regulation still haunting us today and even threatening the future.

The Madoff scandal was one of Wall Street’s biggest, coming to light with the economic crash that began in late 2008. The film focuses on the investigation into Madoff by a handful of individuals who pursued it for 10 years.

Harry Markopolos, Frank Casey and Neil Chelo were the first three members of that team of unofficial investigators. Markopolos, a brilliant securities analyst, was challenged by his employer to craft an investment strategy to match Madoff’s seeming successful one. It took Markopolos about five minutes’ analysis to see that, mathematically, the scheme had to be a scam. After presenting his results to Casey and Chelo, the three launched an unofficial but damning investigation into Madoff’s financial scheme, and were joined later by financial journalist Michael Ocrant and lawyer Gaytri Kachroo.

Yet despite a growing mound of evidence, convincing anyone else that Madoff was actually running a Ponzi scheme or getting the Securities and Exchange Commission to look into his investment group, proved maddeningly difficult.

One factor was Madoff’s power and status on Wall Street, making him a feared figure. But there was more to this collective blindness, and that is the subject the film really lays bare.

Directed by Jeff Prosserman and distributed by Cohen Media, this documentary tells a great story that is both gripping and enraging. The film was adapted from Markopolos’ bestseller “No One Would Listen.”

The film opens with news reports as the Madoff scandal broke. The reports revealed not only did Madoff report steady profits from investments that were fake but that he bilked wealthy investors, including family members, friends and charities, totaling in the billions. Some of these investors lost their entire life savings.

Markopolos and his team of whistleblowers uncovered not just Madoff’s scheme but a chain of others who helped recruit victims – bankers, underworld figures and international movers-and-shakers, all keeping the ever-growing Ponzi scheme going. Markopolos faced personal risks and danger to his family in his desperate effort to get the SEC to act.

The documentary explores the facts uncovered by the group of financial experts in a visually dynamic way, offering clear, graphical descriptions of the financial matters, recapping the history of Ponzi schemes and the mission of the SEC with archival footage and voice over summaries. It also recaps the time-line of the Madoff case, with a sprinkling of heartbreaking commentary from his victims.

Telling the story in such a colorful, visual way is a double-edged sword. While visuals taken from ’40s crime films and animated images of financial topics make the proceedings less dry and break up the usual documentary array of talking heads, it is also sometimes distracting. “Chasing Madoff” explores a great topic but the film itself sometimes goes off on tangents or distracts by being too busy. Prosserman seems to be imitating Errol Morris’ inventive style of documentary storytelling but just goes too far with bells and whistles.

In addition, the film is somewhat disappointing in its lack of insight into Madoff himself – what drove him to exploit family, friends and even charities for his own profit.

But stylistic excesses and a plot hole should not discourage audiences. Under its busy exterior, “Chasing Madoff” is a riveting story of relentless pursuit, appalling criminal activity and inexcusable failure of a government agency to serve the American people who fund it. In many ways, that continued failure of the SEC to do its job, and the lack of justice in this case (the film points out no one other than Madoff has gone to jail), is the real scandal this excellent documentary exposes.