The Wizard of Lies May 20, 8 p.m., HBO.
Director Barry Levinson’s last biopic for HBO was the 2010 Jack Kevorkian story You Don’t Know Jack, and his new Bernie Madoff biopic, The Wizard of Lies, could have been retitled You Don’t Know Bernie. As played by Robert De Niro, Madoff remains an aloof and inscrutable character for the entire 135 minutes, even as a framing device features journalist Diana B. Henriques (awkwardly playing herself) attempting to understand his motivations. But Levinson and the three screenwriters (working from Henriques’ book) turn Madoff’s inherent unknowability is one of the movie’s strengths, as investigators, business associates and Madoff’s own family members struggle to understand how and why he could have perpetrated the largest financial fraud in U.S. history.
The bulk of the movie takes place around the time of Madoff’s arrest in late 2008, without any lengthy flashbacks. It’s not the story of Madoff’s life so much as a dissection of the ongoing repercussions of his actions, although Madoff remains the central figure. De Niro’s performance is solid and never showy, even when Madoff loses his temper, bullying his sons Mark (Alessandro Nivola) and Andrew (Nathan Darrow) in part over his frustrated expectations for them and in part over his need to keep his ever-expanding Ponzi scheme (which eventually encompassed up to $65 billion) a secret.
The most impressive performance in the movie comes from Michelle Pfeiffer as Madoff’s wife, Ruth, who spent nearly her entire life supporting and relying on her husband, only to have all of that shattered in an instant. While the movie spends comparatively little time on the thousands of people Madoff defrauded (acknowledging them in a couple of brief but intense montages), it conveys the severity of his crimes in the devastation of his immediate family, showing how he did lasting damage to the people he loved most, and none of them ever understood why.