As the lights came up in the Varsity theatre after Chasing Madoff, the opening night film at the Toronto Jewish Film Festival in May, a tall man in a rumpled tan jacket stood in front of the screen and uncomfortably received a standing ovation from the packed theatre.
The audience had just finished watching a story about him, Harry Markopolos, someone who could be described as the world’s most tenacious man. The 54-year-old Boston accountant and financial investigator spent 10 years struggling to make the U.S. government hear and act on his assertion that Bernie Madoff was a crook and running a Ponzi scheme to defraud investors.
A man at the back of the theatre called him a hero, but Markopolos, the very definition of an honourable man — as Toronto director Jeff Prosserman’s superb documentary Chasing Madoff makes clear — shook his head. For one thing, he said quietly, he was fearful for his safety. Heroes are brave. For another, he didn’t persuade the Securities and Exchange Commission to bust Madoff. The fraudster finally confessed and was arrested in 2008.
Now Chasing Madoff finally hits theatres, a story as compelling as any detective yarn with an arrogant bad guy who could have come right from Hollywood and a real-life hero on his tail.
Prosserman uses clever visual tricks: newsreel footage, quick hits and fanciful imagery to keep the movie engaging. Interviews are brief, more like sound bites, but contain useful pieces of information that move the story along in dramatic fashion. He adds a Sam Spade film-noir feel by shooting black-and-white scenes of Markopolos with Venetian blind-style lighting. You half expect someone nicknamed “Dollface” to walk in with a mug of joe.
The fanciful elements of Chasing Madoff up the entertainment ante, but at the heart of the film is Prosserman’s telling of Markopolos’s story. The numbers whiz described by colleagues as a “loveable, affable geek” knew “in four minutes” the Madoff investment fund was a fraud the first time he saw it on paper. The performance line detailing the fund was “straight up,” recalled Markopolos. “It looked like nothing from finance I had ever seen.”
Put it this way, he explained to his colleague Frank Casey: If Madoff was a ball player, he’d have a .964 batting average.
“It was pretty clear it was a fraud,” says Markopolos.
Clear to him and a few who believed him, but not worth looking at as far as the government was concerned. Shockingly, the SEC never bothered to do third-party checks on the trades Madoff claimed to be making. It gave the fund the green light and investors continued writing cheques. After all, when Uncle Sam says a fund is solid, why question it?
Markopolos wrote a detailed report about Madoff for the SEC in 2000. It did nothing. He wrote more, each with more facts and examples of why the fund was a paper tiger. He gave the story to financial magazine Forbes. The publisher spiked it. Meanwhile, Markopolos continued his investigations and turned up even more shocking evidence. Fearful for his safety for blowing the whistle over and over on the bad guys and hearing nobody answer, he also bought guns for himself and his wife and took to checking his car for bombs.
Sandwiched in between the Madoff chase are quick explanations of everything from what is the SEC to how to run a Ponzi scheme, along with moving interviews with those who were victims of the scam. “The retirement is never,” one man says with a sigh.
Markopolos finally got some satisfaction when he testified before a 2009 congressional hearing into the SEC’s bungling of the Madoff matter, revealing it ignored repeated and detailed warnings from Markopolos that laid out Madoff’s scam, chapter and verse.
Madoff is currently serving a 150-year jail term. But Chasing Madoff concludes with disheartening evidence that the scams continue. The head of the snake has been cut off but the body still lives.
Like last year’s Wall Street docs Inside Job and Client 9, Chasing Madoff will make you both incredulous and very angry. But it will also make you feel admiration for the hero of the piece. Whether Markopolos likes it or not, he is just that.