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Review: 'Chasing Madoff' not very arresting

By Mark Rabinowitz, Special to CNN
Jeff Prosserman's documentary "Chasing Madoff" follows the trek to unveil the crimes of financier Bernie Madoff.
Jeff Prosserman's documentary "Chasing Madoff" follows the trek to unveil the crimes of financier Bernie Madoff.
  • Reviewer Mark Rabinowitz says "Chasing Madoff" documentary had potential to be so much more
  • Film becomes biopic of man who tried to stop financier Bernie Madoff for nearly a decade
  • A $50 billion Ponzi scheme resulted in Madoff pleading guilty to a myriad of charges

(CNN) -- That Bernie Madoff was a crook of virtually unheard of proportions is clear. That he defrauded tens of thousands of individual investors, charities and other institutions that will never get their money back is a matter of public record.

The allegation that the U.S. government failed to do its job and protect the people from financial fraud is shocking and potentially criminal. All of this would seem tailor-made for a compelling documentary, but Jeff Prosserman's film is mostly, well ... odd.

While a movie dealing with this subject matter could have been styled as crusading journalism or fashioned into an investigative thriller, Prosserman decided to turn it into a fawning biopic of Harry Markopolos, the man who tried to bring down Madoff for almost 10 years before the world's collapsing financial markets did it for him.

This in and of itself wasn't a bad choice.

Markopolos is an interesting, smart, earnest and decidedly offbeat fellow, the kind of person who might make a compelling and entertaining protagonist. Not only that, his near-10 years of tilting at a very real windmill makes for a heartbreaking story.

However, the director's almost myopic focus on Markopolos, including some odd and out-of-left-field segments on his family, constantly takes attention away from where it should be, namely Madoff and his possible co-conspirators.

It starts out well enough, focusing on how Markopolos, along with Frank Casey and Neil Chelo, his co-workers at Rampart Investment Management in Boston, first discovered the fraud. When Casey returned from a trip to New York with a marketing document claiming to show an amazing investment manager getting unheard of returns, Markopolos took about five minutes to label the fund a fraud.

The trio then began working together to expose Madoff's criminal activity to the government. Over the next nine years the fraud grew into a massive $50 billion Ponzi scheme that eventually cracked under its own weight as the world financial markets began to falter, making the scheme untenable.

One main problem with the film is that Prosserman, clearly a fan of Errol Morris' stylized approach, doesn't have anywhere near that master's touch and has styled his film more like one of those TV "investigative reports," marathons of which run on Saturday afternoons in the high-numbered channels on cable. It's filled with everything from on-the-nose (and repeated ad nauseam) shots of bloody hands and flaming piles of money (get it?) to staged re-enactments that range from distracting to the outright ridiculous.

While Markopolos repeatedly claims his life was in danger, the film never shows any evidence of such, yet gives what seems to be endless screen time to shots of him loading weapons and glamour shots of pistols. There are even "what if" sequences of the assassination of his family and car bombing of his kids. It plays as if either there wasn't enough "real" footage so they had to insert a lot of filler to play behind Markopolos' dialogue or it was someone's idea of making a doc "exciting." It's not.

That Markopolos is an honest, dedicated and courageous person is not in doubt. That he also comes off as a little ... odd is also not in doubt. Like the night he went to a speech by then-New York State Attorney General Eliot Spitzer at the Kennedy Library in an attempt to slip him some documents ... while armed: "I always pack light or heavy, depending on the situation. And that night was a heavy night." Is this a documentary about a uncovering a massive fraud or an undiscovered Raymond Chandler screenplay?

That seems reasonable compared with a later segment. When Markopolos revealed his plan for what he'd do if the Securities and Exchange Commission stormed his house looking for documents (something he seems to have thought was inevitable), I started to look around for Will Sampson (in "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest") chewing a piece of Juicy Fruit: "We had rehearsed what I call a battle drill, where if somebody did pierce the premises, I'd go down to the first floor and confront the suspects (and) my wife would remain posted at the top of the stairs. ... Anybody coming up the stairs that wasn't me, she'd just keep shooting till she ran out of ammo." Say what?

Had the filmmakers used Markopolos et al. as a locus from which to explore further areas such as the complex way in which Madoff was able to bilk such a massive amount of money from investors for so long, how the international finance community knowingly participated in the fraud and how the SEC repeatedly ignored evidence for nearly a decade, "Chasing Madoff" may well have been an extraordinary call to arms and a wake-up call to those not already clamoring for reform.

As it is, that no one listened to Markopolos is indeed a tragedy, but Prosserman's treatment often plays like a farce.