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‘Chasing Madoff’: How To Bring Greed To Justice

Filed by KOSU News in Art & Life.
August 25, 2011

There’s little fresh news about Bernie Madoff from Chasing Madoff, an overexcited new documentary about one of the most wantonly destructive Ponzi schemes in the annals of American white-collar crime. Fair enough: Madoff said next to nothing in public before going away for good. But his sorry tale is worth re-telling, if only to piece together the connective tissue between government, big business and, to a lesser degree, the media institutions that propped up what most insiders knew or suspected was a massive fraud for years before Madoff got his comeuppance.

Chasing Madoff tells the story of one man who tried to break the silence. Harry Markopolos, an obscure securities analyst turned fraud investigator, doggedly followed the trail of Madoff’s global pyramid investment racket for a decade before Madoff’s arrest in December 2008. Along the way he encountered mountainous obstruction and ineptitude from those who were supposed to be on the case themselves.

By his own shambling admission, Markopolos is a pretty dull and nerdy fellow. Indeed, the most interesting thing about him is how well he fits the whistleblower profile so persuasively etched by Russell Crowe in Michael Mann’s neglected 1999 tobacco industry exposé The Insider. Markopolos is upright, uptight and excruciatingly awkward, a former insider was outraged when the rules of honor drilled into him in Catholic school and the Army were broken by others higher up the food chain.

Wall Street could use a few more honest dweebs like Markopolos. Yet he’s no shrinking violet — he’s already co-written a breathless book about his adventures, subtitled A True Financial Thriller. Jeff Prosserman, a former branding consultant who wrote, produced and directed Chasing Madoff, adroitly taps into a strain of vanity in this grey suburbanite, packaging Markopolos into a vigilante action drama with himself and a team of associates (they called themselves the Foxhounds) as the improbable saviors at its center.

When he and his posse are not framed, Errol Morris-style, against a black background, venting about how he tried to convince the press and the SEC that something was very wrong in Dodge, Markopolos is the eager star of histrionic re-enactments that pump up his terror of succumbing to a contract killing. Shots ring out on the soundtrack where none occurred in real life. A coffin image pops up, along with old newsreel footage of other whistleblowers lying dead on the ground. An elderly Massachusetts cop, clearly thrilled to be on camera, rehearses how he fitted Markopolos with a bulletproof vest. We see him learning how to use a gun and hustling his young twin sons in and out of the family sedan to avert a murder that appears to be entirely in his head — or in Prosserman’s, who’s either making fun of his subject or exploiting his fears.

On balance, it’s a good thing that non-fiction film has liberated itself from the on-the-one-hand-on-the-other dreariness of talking-heads filmmaking. But the obligation remains not to distort or, for that matter, to court conflict of interest. Was it kosher for Gaytri Kachroo, the attorney Markopolos hired to build a business model for his firm, to act as associate producer on a film in which she has a small but heroic role?

All this paranoid flim-flam drains energy away from the staggering, if far less cinematic, fact that Markopolos was ignored, not targeted. It took him five book-keeping minutes to see that Madoff’s ever-increasing profit margins did not add up, and another decade of fruitless efforts to persuade a strategically blind and deaf SEC, the Wall Street Journal, Eliot Spitzer and other institutional players that a massive and global white-collar crime was being perpetrated right under their noses. The movie raises but ultimately fudges the possibility of the SEC’s active collusion with the private sector, but it’s quite clear on the billowing hubris that led the agency to ignore crystal-clear signs of cooked books.

In the end, as Markopolos readily admits, it was not his efforts that tripped up Madoff but capitalism itself. The stock market crashed, the global empire crumbled, and when he had no other choice, he turned himself in. Harry Markopolos is indeed a hero and it’s great to see him finally get his due, but one wishes Prosserman had resisted one final opportunity to turn this methodical Everyman into a cloak-and-dagger cartoon. “Fifteen years down the road, they’ll understand,” Markopolos says of his sons, who aren’t quite sure why their Dad won so many awards. Either that, or the twins will call their agents to pitch an action caper, only to be told that one was already made, and misfiled under documentary. [Copyright 2011 National Public Radio]

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