Madoff: Transfixed by Tragedy

A few days ago, I was reading a book about narrative and marketing that uses the heroic fable as a sales technique. The book even claimed the heroic fable is the “gold standard of storytelling.” Though the heroic fable has its value, it is not the only type of story. That point was made forcefully by the television mini-series Madoff that first aired on ABC on February 3 and 4.

Madoff is a quintessential tragedy. Like Hamlet or Macbeth, you know this story will end badly, with incarceration for Madoff and his accomplices, several suicides, and substantial financial losses for investors in his fund. But you still want to follow the narrative arc that leads to the tragic ending.

I was familiar with the Madoff story, having read investigative journalist Erin Arvedlund’s Too Good to be True and whistleblower Harry Markopolos’s memoir No One Would Listen. The Madoff affair was an obvious candidate for adoption to moving image story-telling, so I was interested to see what was done with it.

The series chose to focus its attention on the Madoff family, because it was the context for the worst betrayals and the strongest emotions. Focusing on the family came at cost of paying less attention to the investors, who were also betrayed, and to the business issues raised by the story. The two unexplained business issues were the details of Madoff’s legitimate operation, which gave him cover for his Ponzi scheme, and the financial engineering story Madoff told about how he was able to consistently produce strong returns. However, the series made clear the nature of Madoff’s Ponzi scheme and how he and several associates make it appear that the fund was actually investing money and producing returns for its investors.

The family story incorporated the deepest tragedy and irony. Bernard Madoff wanted a close, loving, and strong family. But, once he chose to go rogue, he could only do this by keeping his wife and two sons in the dark about the true nature of his operation. One son, Mark, had an MBA was particularly eager to take on increasing responsibility in the investment business. Madoff had to protect him by restricting him to the legitimate brokerage; as a consequence Mark’s anger at this perceived infantilization kept building.

Ultimately Madoff’s game was up when redemptions during the 2008 market crash depleted as his available cash. As soon as he told Mark, Mark sought immediate retribution by turning his father in.

To protect his accomplices and particularly his family, Madoff pleaded guilty and did not cooperate with authorities. His family was protected, but ultimately dissolved in anger, suicide (Mark) and fatal illness (his other son Andrew’s death from cancer). And for Bernard’s wife Ruth the last straw, causing her to totally cut contact, was reading Hadassah CFO Sheryl Weinstein’s article disclosing her affair with him. Madoff’s accomplices were not spared either, as the government had enough evidence to convict them.

Madoff’s refusal to talk also meant that he provided no coherent explanation of why he committed his crimes. This silence at the heart of this great crime created a challenge for the creators of the series. They could not write lines for the leading actor, Richard Dreyfuss, to explain why he did what he did. But Dreyfuss showed obvious delight in tricking clients, and spoke directly to the audience to explain his tradecraft (“tell them the fund is closed but you will make an exception for them”).

Dreyfuss was superb at showing both “the art of the [fraudulent] deal” and the insistent terror that on any given day his fraud would be discovered. One of Dreyfuss’s breakthrough roles in 1974 was as Duddy Kravitz, the brash, self-confident, energetic, but ultimately fraudulent “comer” in the film The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz. In Madoff, a slower and mature Dreyfuss portrays the aging adult that Duddy Kravitz likely would have become.

It was clear to me from Harry Markopolos’s memoir No One Would Listen that, though he had the financial smarts to figure out that Madoff’s story explaining his success was an obvious lie, he lacked the people smarts to be able to convince the SEC to take action. The creators of Madoff clearly agreed with my assessment, portraying Markopolos as a pessimistic, eccentric, and ineffectual geek.

To conclude, I found Madoff a satisfying retelling of a tragic story that vividly brought to life the written accounts that preceded it.

1 comment

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