The documentary Chasing Madoff opens this week and last night I had a chance to attend a preview (courtesy of eOne Films).
The film is really the story of fraud investigator Harry Markopolos, the guy who uncovered Madoff’s scheme while working as an options trader at Rampart Investment Management, and then worked valiantly to get the Securities and Exchange Commission to take notice.
It’s kind of a fun film, but not a great film. Lacking a narrator, it opts instead to tell the story through first-hand accounts of a handful of people (primarily Markopolos and a couple of colleagues, along with a few of Madoff’s victims) and snippets from newscasts. As a result Chasing Madoff feels personal but also slanted, though perhaps not fatally so.
Markopolos is a bit of a strange cat. He’s a likeable guy, and apparently a man of integrity, but he comes off as a bit paranoid. On-screen, he tells us that he feared Madoff so much that he was ready to pre-emptively shoot the guy if Madoff had discovered his investigation. He also describes what his strategy would be in the event of an armed standoff with the SEC, should they ever come to his home to get his files—files that included damning evidence of SEC complacency. For emphasis, one scene shows him leaning against his desk, brandishing a pump-action shotgun. These humourous parts are, I think, intentional—surely director Jeff Prosserman must have known they would spark laughter. And humour is fine, but it tends to undercut the filmmakers’ stated intention of generating outrage in their audience.
What’s most striking, perhaps, about Chasing Madoff is what it doesn’t tell us about the scandal. For example, it points fingers at the SEC, but tells us nothing about the agency’s funding levels, and whether it had the capacity to keep up with complaints like Markopolos’s as they flowed in. There are also allegations that “someone higher up” at the Wall Street Journal tried to bury the story before it broke, but not much evidence is given to back that up. And there are intriguing hints about the large number of individuals and organizations that must have been complicit in Madoff’s crimes, and hints at why they had no economic incentive not to keep putting faith in his results. There’s even a claim that Madoff “paid top dollar” to those that would bring him “new victims.” But the relevant parties are not named and the film makes little effort to explain the connections.
Bottom line: I’m a university professor — would I show this movie in my Business Ethics classroom? Probably not. It’s a fine portrayal of a man of integrity fighting the good fight, but it teaches relatively little about how the financial crime of the century happened, or what if anything would prevent it from happening again.