In what could possibly be one the best performances Robert De Niro has given in this new century, he headlines veteran filmmaker Barry Levinson’s (Rain Man, Good Morning Vietnam) dramatic reconstruction of the fall of Bernie Madoff, one of the most respected and highly regarded market traders that Wall Street has ever seen.
Bernie (De Niro) holds his family in high esteem, yet keeps them at arm’s length. His two sons Mark (Alessandro Nivola) and Andrew (House of Cards’ Nathan Darrow) beg him to reveal the inner workings of his business to them, Bernie insists they’re ‘not ready’. His wife Ruth (an excellent Michelle Pfeiffer) asks him to retire, but Bernie is adamant that the company needs his guidance. So as the film opens, the awful truth is revealed: Madoff has lost more than $65 billion dollars of his investors’ money and faces impending arrest: thousands of people’s life savings, pensions, retirement funds and company earnings, have all been vaporised. His decades long ‘Ponzi’ scheme fraud had grown to such extremes, he was incapable of reversing the damage. When clients requested several billion in returns so they can cash out, Bernie and his accountant Frank (Hank Azaria) only had $200 million in funds. When Bernie reveals the truth to his unsuspecting family, it has a cataclysmic effect. His sons’ promising careers disintegrate, Ruth becomes a social pariah. Family rifts develop as the media scrutiny becomes unbearable. The soul searching starts and so do the questions.
Madoff helped launch the Nasdaq stock market, he sat on the board of the National Association of Securities Dealers as well as advising the Securities and Exchange Commission on trading securities. For these reasons, his fraud went unnoticed.
As the stoic, virtually inert Madoff, De Niro is a picture of tightly wound conflict and constriction, his performance being more about what he doesn’t do, rather than what he does do. Pfeiffer is terrific as Ruth and Darrow and Nivola are particularly fine as his doomed sons. The scale of this family tragedy is staggering, how a man living in a bubble of obfuscation and denial, claims to love and care for them yet leaves them to shoulder the burden of media scrutiny and the harsh judgement of a public who believe them to be complicit in the fraud.