When we encounter Wall Street criminals like Bernie Madoff, it's easier and more comfortable to condemn them as monsters and comic book-style supervillains. That way, not only do they warrant our harshest demonization, but we can morally separate ourselves from them by seeing them as lacking a fundamental humanity that we, as non-monsters, clearly have and would unfailingly exhibit if given the opportunity to commit such a monumental crime.
Marc Dreier may be the biggest Wall Street criminal you've never heard of, but he'd respectfully disagree. The new documentary Unraveled was filmed in Dreier's luxurious Park Avenue penthouse while he was under house arrest awaiting sentencing for defrauding hedge funds and investors out of close to $400 million by forging promissory notes in the name of a wealthy real estate mogul. As Dreier explains how and why he did it, we see not a monster, but a person who has taken responsibility for his crimes while the consequences he and his family will face for it come closer with each passing minute. Watch my ReThink Review of Unraveled below (transcript after the video).
Marc Dreier isn't Bernie Madoff. Madoff's ponzi scheme was the biggest financial fraud in world history, stealing tens of billions from thousands of investors, while Dreier defrauded a small number of wealthy clients and hedge funds out of approximately $400 million. But with crimes of this size, it's close enough, and the documentary Unraveled is, in many ways, the Bernie Madoff movie we never got.
Unraveled follows the 30 days before Dreier's sentencing while he's under house arrest in his fabulous Manhattan penthouse. In those conversations, we not only hear how and why Dreier committed his crimes, but we also get to see the face and hear the voice of a man who is taking responsibility for his actions while still grappling with the enormity of his crime and the consequences for both himself and his family.
When the Madoff scandal exploded, most people couldn't understand how anyone, both morally and practically, could steal that much money. But with Dreier, both are laid out plainly. As the economy boomed, the intelligent and ambitious Dreier wanted a bigger piece of the action. So he decided to open his own law firm, but without the credit to rent swanky office space and hire a team of lawyers to attract wealthy clients, Dreier borrowed the money using the name, reputation and good credit of one of his wealthy clients.
Instead of paying the money back, Dreier borrowed more and more, starting offices around the world and living a luxurious lifestyle -- including multiple homes, a yacht, an expensive art collection and a star-studded charity -- that would provide proof that he was someone worth doing business with. But the firm's income couldn't match its debts, and as creditors came calling, Dreier orchestrated increasingly risky and desperate schemes to forestall the inevitable, including impersonating representatives of the companies he was defrauding. The details of Dreier's swindle are recreated using animated illustrations drawn in a striking comic book style.
But the real Dreier is a man imprisoned in his castle under the watch of armed guards, abandoned by everyone but his legal team and his college-age son, as the clock ticks down to his sentencing. It's this quiet period -- as Dreier is left alone to contemplate what he did, the freedoms he'll lose, and how much of his kids' lives he'll be missing -- that we never got from Bernie Madoff, making Unraveled a fascinating case study of the kind of personality that would commit such a monumental crime.
Madoff was painted as a monster, a villain and a sociopath, and very little has challenged that. The Madoffs went into hiding, Bernie's apologies were seen as self-serving and inauthentic, and later statements by Bernie and his wife about how difficult the scandal had been for their family didn't garner much sympathy. We never got to see the quiet, lonely moments Madoff must've had as the weight and consequences of his crimes bore down on him.
In Unraveled, we see those moments with Dreier. While the easiest and most satisfying thing would be to see men like Dreier and Madoff as simply evil, Unraveled shows Dreier as an ambitious, intelligent man who took a shortcut, got in over his head, then became trapped by the monster he created. And Dreier dares to pose a difficult but important question to the audience -- whether the reason we don't steal isn't based on morality but a fear of getting caught, and that, as Dreier says, "It's easy to say you would never cross the line, but the line is presented to very few people."
The only time I ever felt any sympathy for Bernie Madoff is when his son, Mark, committed suicide after two years of shame for his father's crimes. But with Unraveled, you might feel some sympathy because you see Dreier as a human being, not a supervillain. And that's important, because in the end the crimes of Wall Street, which we're still paying for, were committed by people, not monsters. The more we're able to understand the mindset and conditions that allow such crimes, like lax regulation and a culture that reveres short term gain, the better we'll be at preventing future financial crimes, making Unraveled is an invaluable tool in that struggle.