An independent group of analysts trying to bring Bernie Madoff's massive Ponzi scheme to public attention discovered the fraud within five minutes of looking at clearly cooked books, the new documentary Chasing Madoff tells us. Ten years later the crime was uncovered as the financial crisis finally demolished one of the largest frauds in history. The group, despite its efforts, had nothing to do with the eventual justice.
Chasing focuses on this futile quest, but despite the dramatic potential of the subject, the ease in which the fraud is uncovered means there's no suspense at the start, while Madoff's fate provides no catharsis at the end, making this the cinematic equivalent of a sure-thing investment that fizzles when it comes to returns.
Part of the problem is that the team, led by Harry Markopolos, is more notable for being ignored than for being a dramatic subject in and of itself. As they recall handing finished reports to regulators and journalists, we ask why these charges weren't followed up upon, but the film has no answers. Was it an under-funded and -staffed SEC? Cowardly editors? Or a culture of corruption that engulfed the institutions meant to protect investors? That's the story that needs to be told, no matter what the answer. By comparison the investigation is an interesting footnote but hardly warrants a full-length narrative.
Compounding this is director Jeff Prosserman's over-reliance on ludicrous reenactments that top made-for-TV movies in their cheesiness, and star the subjects as themselves (as actors, they're pretty good accountants). There's shameless exploitation in the icky and obviously scripted scene where Markopolos' kids are taught about hunting predators in the woods. (There may be some symbolism there.) Stylistic flourishes like spiraling cameras and oft-irrelevant archival footage go from distracting to amateurish fast.
Chasing's main flaw is it's refusal to consider its hero with any kind of objectivity. Markopolos frets for his safety, but did a threat ever exist? A dramatization of a house being broken into outrageously suggests the dangers he faced, but as this apparently never happened it calls the filmmaker's journalistic credentials into serious question.
The other investigators never felt threatened, so the portrait that emerges is of a seriously paranoid man trains his wife to "keep shooting" in the event of a showdown with the SEC rather than getting a safety deposit box to secure his evidence in. There's drama in what the investigation did to its leader, if not to Madoff, and the story would be far more effective if its director viewed his subject with the same clear eyes that his subject pursued his target.
Opens August 26