Kernel Rating (out of 5):
Length: 91 minutes
MPAA Rating: NR
Age Appropriate for: 13+. There’s nothing really objectionable in terms of sex, violence or cursing, since the film is a documentary. But I’m not sure the film would be appealing to younger teens, who probably don’t really understand the implications and effects of Bernie Madoff’s Ponzi scheme anyway.
Bernie Madoff is one bad dude. ‘Chasing Madoff’ documents the men who knew he was a fraid for years before the schemer was caught, but its failure to implement other perspectives makes the documentary too much of a glowing portrait.
By Roxana Hadadi
Bernie Madoff will be in prison for the rest of his life, and obviously the guy deserves it. But while “Chasing Madoff” cements home that he was a raging jerk, it’s also too loving toward whistleblower Harry Markopolos, who for years knew Madoff was a fraud and tried to convince others to investigate and prosecute the guy. I believe Markopolos’s story and respect his unyielding desire for justice, but I wish “Chasing Madoff” had talked to more people than just his co-investigators and cheerleaders in getting the whole story.
If you have ever read a newspaper or watched the news, you know what Madoff did: He created a massive Ponzi scheme, worth $50 billion, that Madoff amassed by stealing from thousands of investors, from individuals who gave him their retirement accounts to nonprofit organizations to European royals. He plead guilty in March 2009 to 11 federal felonies, but while the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission had investigated him before, they never uncovered his overwhelmingly huge fraud (which was mentioned in last year’s underrated buddy-cop comedy “The Other Guys”).
It’s both Madoff and the SEC that “Chasing Madoff” goes after, and no one involved in the documentary has anything nice to say, of course. Director and writer Jeff Prosserman — who adapted the film from Markopolos’s book, “No One Would Listen: A True Financial Thriller” — interviews Markopolos; his co-workers at Boston-based Rampart Investment Management who figured out the scheme, former senior vice president of marketing Frank Casey and former portfolio manager Neil Chelo; investigative journalist Michael Ocrant, former editor in chief of the publication MARHedge; and Markopolos’s lawyer, Gaytri Kachroo. All of them applaud Markopolos, rail against Madoff and express resentment toward the SEC, whom they gave information to for years regarding Madoff’s fraud, to no avail.
It’s clear, and understandable, that they’re all immensely frustrated. Casey explains how in 1999, Rampart was looking to build a new product for their company and tasked him with researching up-and-coming ideas; through friend and hedge fund founder Thierry de la Villehuchet, the CEO of Access International Advisors, Casey learned about a mysterious “Manager B.” who was delivering phenomenal returns. Impressed but skeptical, Casey brought some paperwork back to Markopolos, who did work on all the numbers and soon realized “it looked like nothing from finance I’d ever seen. … You don’t get straight lines in finance,” he says. “This is a fraud.”
With Casey and Chelo agreeing that Manager B., discovered to be Madoff, was running “a massive fraud … [the] biggest fraud ever,” Markopolos began trying to get the SEC to investigate the situation. Since Madoff needed an ever-increasing flow of new victims to pay off his old victims, the cycle of money would continue to grow — “You cannot raise money fast enough to pay back all the people you owe a return to” — so Markopolos, Casey and Chelo could only guess how far the fraud would go if left unchecked.
But that’s exactly what was done: Nothing. “There were steps they could have taken; they simply didn’t take them,” says David Kotz, SEC inspector general. For years, the SEC failed in properly following up with Madoff, allowing him to continue running his scheme, so “Chasing Madoff’ chronicles Markopolos’s other attempts to give the situation press, such as calling The Wall Street Journal. After a whistleblower for a mutual fund in Boston was beaten and left for dead in a parking lot, Markopolos “began finding ways to protect himself” — veering the film in a weird, militaristic direction that employs lots of black and white recreations of Markopolos loading guns and checking under his car for bombs. The film’s fantastical images of Markopolos’s actions to protect his family, mixed with his complaints about how everyone ignored him, give the documentary a somewhat uneven quality that is always clear only in its support of the whistleblower and criticism of Madoff.
Madoff deserves anything bad that’s said about him, as proved by the depressing interviews with people who lost their money in his scheme, who are featured in the documentary. But as Markopolos recounts his story, of calling unwilling journalists who didn’t want to hear what he had to say, contacting people within the SEC or trying to reach former New York Gov. Eliot Spitzer, it would be nice if Prosserman had actually spoken to any of those people. Markopolos says Forbes’s publisher killed a 12-page story planned to uncover Madoff, and that Wall Street Journal reporter John Wilke also refused to touch the story, but Prosserman doesn’t have footage of either of them following up on these accusations. Even some text explaining that they didn’t want to take part in the documentary would help ease some of its lopsidedness.
But while “Chasing Madoff” does gallop into strange territory with all the descriptions about Markopolos’s survival tactics — footage of him at the shooting range, talk of how he thought about killing Madoff, a staged-seeming scene of him explaining the differences between predators and prey to his twin sons — it’s overall an interesting look at someone who helped bring down a criminal empire. More balance would have been nice, but it’s easy to understand why Prosserman would try to give Markopolos the attention he deserves. After years of being ignored, who wouldn’t want to be appreciated?