Bernie didn’t fail us. We failed Bernie.
That’s the message, perhaps unintentional, of the four-hour ABC mini-series “Madoff” (Wednesday and Thursday). Told from the point of view of Bernard L. Madoff, now serving a 150-year prison sentence for perpetrating America’s greatest Ponzi scheme, it’s a story of chutzpah, not hubris. Mr. Madoff was just a poor boy from Queens with a dream. Was it his fault that people are so easy to fool?
“Madoff,” written by Ben Robbins and directed by Raymond De Felitta, doesn’t ignore the tale’s tragic dimensions. But it doesn’t emphasize them, either. The first two hours, as Mr. Madoff builds his illusory empire and at first evades detection, are largely played for comedy, even farce. The second half, when it all comes crashing down, favors movie-of-the-week melodrama and sentimentalism.
And throughout, the voice we hear, narrating the action and inexorably drawing our sympathy, is that of Mr. Madoff. Or rather that of Richard Dreyfuss, who gives a polished, surprisingly jovial performance in an underwritten role. If the main job of a Madoff drama is to get inside the head of a man who could pull off such a brazen scheme for so long, “Madoff” doesn’t find much there besides clichés about striving Jewish immigrants (who tend to make the best salesmen) and overbearing patriarchs.
What the production lacks in moral dimension or psychological acuity it occasionally makes up for in entertainment value. The first night, especially, offers some snappy comedy as it delineates how Mr. Madoff and a few trusted employees carried out their titanic fraud under the noses of the rest of his firm’s employees, including his two sons.
These scenes will be familiar to followers of the Madoff case from thetestimony of his lieutenant Frank DiPascali Jr., played here as a benign financial wiseguy by Michael Rispoli. When investigators demand a nonexistent file, the fraudsters hurriedly assemble a fake version and then, to give it the proper filing-cabinet sheen, toss it around the room like a football and smash it into the walls.
In one of the show’s funniest scenes Mr. DiPascali demonstrates a computer system for a couple of hedge-fund executives, ostensibly showing them how Mr. Madoff is able to generate steady returns for his clients through any kind of market. When he types a request into the machine — which is just a shell — it goes to an employee at a desk two floors below, who sends back the desired response.
The hedge-fund guys, who are recurring characters, are generally portrayed as greedy buffoons, which is representative of the show’s approach. It wants to please the viewer by showing us the rich as grinning idiots, government regulators as dim apparatchiks and the whistle-blower Harry Markopolos (Frank Whaley), the closest thing the story has to a hero, as a sweaty, twitching numbers geek.
Parallel to the tale of the scam is the story of its effect on the Madoff family, and as my colleague Joe Nocera has pointed out, much more time is spent on their problems than on the problems of Mr. Madoff’s victims. Several good actors are sacrificed to this soap-opera material — Peter Scolari can’t do much with Mr. Madoff’s brother, Peter, who spends most of the show falling deeper into spiritual crisis, and neither can Blythe Danner with Mr. Madoff’s wife, Ruth, though she has some nice moments in scenes with Danny Deferrari as the Madoffs’ son Andrew. Tom Lipinski of “The Knick” fares best as the other son, Mark, who represents all the outrage Mr. Madoff generated.
“Madoff” is Mr. Dreyfuss’s show, though, and while the charismatic character he puts on screen, generous and loyal to a fault, may not jibe with our impression of the real Mr. Madoff, he’s fun to watch. If Bernard L. Madoff said, “I’m simply an ordinary businessman who got in over his head,” you’d laugh. When Richard Dreyfuss says it, you laugh — and you half believe him.