Bernard Madoff's name is in the title of Chasing Madoff. But this is really a film about Harry Markopolos, for better or worse.
Markopolos (which he pronounces mark-oh-POE-lis) is the know-it-all who actually knew it all -- and couldn't get anyone to believe him. That's what makes Chasing Madoff so infuriating: Markopolos and his team were waving red flags, sending smoke signals, sounding alarms and doing anything else they could to warn people about Madoff's fraud - and, for a decade, the see-no-evil Bush-era SEC ignored them.
Chasing Madoff is a searing indictment of the fast-and-loose free-market attitude that nearly sank the world economy. I can't imagine how painful it would be to watch it, were I someone who had lost a fortune to Madoff's malfeasance.
Directed by Jeff Prosserman and covering much the same material that Markopolos went through in his book, No One Would Listen: A True Financial Thriller, Chasing Madoff is a comprehensive film on one subject. Unlike, say, Charles Ferguson's Oscar-winning Inside Job, it doesn't take a global view. Rather, Markopolos and his colleagues, including Frank Casey and Neil Chelo, face the camera and tell this one story.
Which is that, a decade earlier, as investment bankers in Boston, they were tipped off to an investment banker in New York, Madoff, who was producing astonishing returns on investments to the select group who were allowed to invest with him. When Markopolos, something of an obsessive, started to examine Madoff's numbers, he came to the only logical conclusion you could without turning reality on its head: that this must be a fraud, an elaborate Ponzi scheme.
But no one would listen to him. The SEC turned a blind eye -- and each time Markopolos and his colleagues seemed to get someone from the media interested in the story, the story somehow would be killed before it saw print.
The number of steps they took that were ignored or simply brushed aside by people in power is astonishing and eye-opening. It was only in retrospect -- after Madoff turned himself in -- that Markopolos' nonbelievers suddenly realized that he wasn't simply a Cassandra, spewing predictions of doom.
Unfortunately, Prosserman's film doesn't have another story to tell, except Markopolos'. And, by the middle of the film, you're a little tired of his paranoid ramblings. I say paranoid, because, after a couple of years of not being able to get anyone to listen to his story, Markopolos became convinced that there was a Madoff-controlled shadow organization strong-arming the financial press and, implicitly, threatening Markopolos' life and the life of his wife and children.
Indeed, like some quaint loon in a Michael Moore film, Markopolos happily lets the camera tag along with him to the firing range, where he takes target practice with his various handguns. He casually explains that he was convinced that Madoff's goons had targeted him for harm. So he got a gun permit so he could defend himself when the inevitable attempt came to silence him.
But Markopolos, as it turns out, was up against something even more insidious: the apathy of the financial media and the seemingly complicit blind eye of the SEC. Madoff didn't need to silence Markopolos; the media and regulatory agencies did it for him, right up until the moment when neither could turn a blind eye to Madoff's crimes.
Markopolos is an annoying presence, however, to feature as the hero of a documentary. He's more than a little whiny and self-righteous, so listening to him can be a chore -- particularly when he's given free rein to fantasize about the hit squads roaming Boston with his photo and dossier, looking to silence him.
Not that Chasing Madoff isn't a movie with an important subject. But Markopolos' central role in the film can make it a chore to watch.
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