Starring two-time Oscar-winner Robert De Niro as Bernie Madoff and three-time Oscar® nominee Michelle Pfeiffer as his wife Ruth, this HBO Films drama dissects the events that led to the Wall Street financier's stunning downfall in December 2008 for defrauding investors of over $65 billion in the most infamous Ponzi scheme in U.S. history. Directed by Oscar®-winner Barry Levinson, The Wizard of Lies vividly recounts Madoff's audacious deceptions that culminated in his vilification while catapulting his wife and two sons into a harsh and unrelenting spotlight, with tragic consequences.
In December of 2008, Wall Street stockbroker and investment advisor, Bernie Madoff, was arrested for the biggest financial fraud in U.S. history. For over 15 years (and perhaps for much, much longer), Madoff had been taking money from wealthy investors and assuring them he was investing their cash in worthwhile stocks. However, it was all a Ponzi scheme. Madoff wasn't buying any stocks or making any trades. He was using new money to pay off previous investors and pocketing what he could along the way. His scheme finally came crashing down around him, resulting in thousands of people being defrauded out of money – many losing their entire life savings.
Director Barry Levinson's The Wizard of Lies is based on Diana Henriques book of the same name, and Henriques has a supporting role here, playing herself as the journalist who interviews Madoff behind bars. Levinson's movie jumps around in time, but never loses focus – starting with Bernie in prison, then jumping back to the day he told his two sons, Andrew (Nathan Darrow) and Mark (Alessandro Nivola), about his crimes. There are also flashbacks within the flashbacks, going back to days when the Madoffs were a happier family, although with the weight of what he was doing always bearing down on Bernie.
Robert De Niro was a great choice for Bernie Madoff, as his past experience playing gangsters on film seems to have prepped him perfectly for this part. No, Madoff isn't a mobster, but he shares a lot of the same characteristics – hiding the truth from his family and law enforcement, all while trying to mentally justify what he is doing. Michelle Pfieffer is equally strong playing Madoff's wife, Ruth. In the hands of another script or another actress, this could have been a thankless role, but Pfieffer is able to portray the devastation her husband has brought to the family while still conveying to the audience why she sticks by his side so long – she essentially has nowhere else to go and no one else to talk to.
The real tragedy here – other than all those people who lost money because of Bernie – is what Madoff's actions do to his two sons. Vilified in the press and accused of being part of the fraud alongside their father, Andrew, Mark, and their respective families essentially have to go into hiding. The scandal hits Mark harder than his brother, as he becomes obsessed with what is being said about him in the newspapers and online, leading to a tragic event.
De Niro has a really tough acting job here – as Madoff's real motivations for why he did what he did may never be known. At times, De Niro plays him as if he has regrets – but his regrets seem to come for all the wrong reasons. He also seems unable to take complete responsibility for his actions, often blaming the victims as playing a role in what happened to them. Every time the movie hints at a bit of sympathy for Madoff, Levinson is quick to remind us of the consequences of Bernie's actions to those around him.
If there's a flaw to the movie, it's probably that it drags on just a little too long (at just short of 2 hours, 15 minutes). A lot of the points Levinson wants to make are repeated over and over, when one or two scenes would have sufficed. But De Niro is so good here (as are his co-stars, including Hank Azaria as Frank DiPascali, one of the few men who knew about and helped Madoff with his scheme) that it's hard to imagine cutting any of his moments out – this is one of his stronger performances of the past decade or so, and that alone makes The Wizard of Lies worth checking out.
Vital Disc Stats: The Blu-ray
The Wizard of Lies schemes its way onto Blu-ray in an eco-friendly Elite keepcase, which houses the dual-layer 50GB disc along with an insert containing a code for an UltraViolet and iTunes digital copy of the movie. There are no front-loaded trailers on the disc, whose main menu is a still shot of the box cover image with menu selections in the left bottom corner of the screen.
Although the back of the box cover indicates this is a Region A release, the Blu-ray is actually region-free.
The Wizard of Lies was shot digitally on Arri Alexa equipment and is presented here in its original television aspect ratio of 1.78:1. This turns out to be a decent transfer and similar to other movies I have seen shot on the Arri, but it does have a few minor issues.
While details are decent throughout, there does tend to be a slight flatness to many scenes, probably due more to the way they are lit and color timed than anything else. As is the case with many digitally shot movies, outdoor scenes benefit the most, while indoor and/or artificially lit scenes tend to suffer a bit. Black levels are just okay here – noise isn't a problem, but details sometimes get slightly murky. Otherwise, the image tends to be very middling as 1080p presentations go – no shots or segments that really "wow" the viewer, but none so poor as to distract.
In terms of any glitches, I did note a couple of brief moments of aliasing during a few camera pans, but other than that, there are no major problems to report.
The featured audio for the movie is an English 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio track. As you might have guessed, given the subject matter here, The Wizard of Lies is a pretty dialogue-heavy movie, but that doesn't mean the 5.1 track is without its moments. There's actually quite a bit of songs during the movie, which the rear speakers enhance without being overbearing. There's also a fantasy/dream sequence that takes place during Christmas that not only amps up Judy Garland singing on TV, but also features gunshots and a few other noticeable aural moments.
Dialogue is clearly rendered throughout, and the mix overall is nicely done. This isn't a track that is going to show off one's home theater in any respect, but it's certainly serviceable given the subject matter here, and it's free from any glitches.
In addition to the 5.1 lossless track, 5.1 French DTS Digital Surround and 2.0 Spanish DTS Digital Surround tracks are also an option. Subtitles are available in English SDH, French, Spanish, Dutch, Danish, Finnish, Norwegian, and Swedish.
Cast Interviews (HD 7:31) – Although labeled as "Cast Interviews", this is actually a featurette on the movie that includes comments from Director Barry Levinson and stars Robert De Niro and Michelle Pfeiffer, as well as some of the other actors in the cast.
Robert De Niro and Michelle Pfeiffer give rock-solid performances as Bernie and Ruth Madoff in The Wizard of Lies, a movie that tries to answer the reasons behind the biggest stock market fraud of all time. While the film is never really able to answer that "why" question, the acting as well as Barry Levinson's direction make this one worthwhile. It's not necessarily the type of movie that needs to be in one's home library, but it's certainly Worth a Look.