Saturday, April 21, 2012

Chasing Madoff

“Chasing Madoff” (2011) should be named as “Chasing Markopolos.” I mean no disrespect to Harry Markopolos, whose investigation brought down Madoff’s Ponzi scheme, but the movie’s second-half feels as if Madoff and SEC are chasing down Markopolos. Is this documentary about exposing Madoff? Or is the film about a financial analyst, Markopolos? The film’s second-half centers on Markopolos, who fears for his family’s well-being, and believes that his family might is the target for a possible gangster-style shootout, as a result of Markopolos going public with his highly-penetrating investigative report on Bernie Madoff. Ignoring the film’s name as a minor anomaly, the film truly stirs up a thought-provoking debate on the broken financial system in the U.S, and the failures of the Securities Exchange Commission (SEC). As such, “Chasing Madoff” is Markopolos’s lonesome and dangerous journey to expose the truth behind the biggest hedge-fund fraud of all time.

While working at Rampart Investment Management, Markopolos discovered that one of the hedge funds managers delivered gains of 1-2% every month; this hedge fund manager was Bernie Madoff. Markopolos started analyzing financial data and returns for Madoff’s hedge fund, and immediately concluded, in five minutes, that Madoff’s numbers don’t add up. To be fully sure, the partners at Rampart asked Markopolos to reverse engineer his analysis, and then design a product that can simulate Madoff’s returns. Even after including information on Madoff’s stock trades, Markopolos’s product could not produce returns like Madoff’s fund. Markopolos’s theory was validated, but he along with the Rampart partners, faced a grave challenge on how to disclose Madoff’s grand Ponzi scheme. After all, Madoff had friends in high places and had backing from multi-millionaires. Who would believe them?

Considering the enormous magnitude of the fraud, most of us, by now, would have heard of Bernie Madoff. He ran one of the oldest financial securities firms on Wall Street, and through this firm, he ran a hedge fund portfolio that eventually turned out to be a massive racket. By the time, Madoff was indicted of the fraud--thanks to Markopolos’s report--the investors lost a total estimated 65-billion dollars of assets. Some say this number could be much higher, because Madoff has been running this scheme for almost thirty years, dating back to the mid ‘70s. The interviews show us the millionaire investors, who lost all their fortune by investing in Madoff’s hedge fund. For investors hoping to retire in riches, suddenly find themselves penniless, having to start everything from scratch. Hedge fund managers at Rampart explain to us how Madoff was running a big Ponzi scheme, which even Madoff could not fully understand. In simple words, a Ponzi scheme is like a long DNA strand, where interconnections are hard to decode.

In an attempt to grab viewers’ attention, filmmakers have juxtaposed ancillary images with the actual interviews. A few of these images look dates and are shot in black-and-white, offering some background on the origin of the SEC and the greed on Wall Street. Then, there are digitally manipulated images, showing the complex nature of the fraud. As if this was not enough, filmmakers have injected short segments, when Markopolos discusses Madoff‘s case, and more specifically his anxieties of going to media with his investigation and its impact on his family life. It is at this point the layout of the documentary feels like a mafia-undercover story, setting movie’s tone that is non-serious, deliberately sensational, and at times comical. Compositionally, the film has a noir feel to it with the grainy, dimly lit shots, consisting of closed spaces and dark shadows. Moreover, the film spends a lot of time in unraveling Markopolos’s internal feelings that are mostly extraneous from a storytelling perspective. As such, these segments could have been shortened.

Rather than inserting extra images and short segments, filmmakers could have interviewed other leading financial analysts and economists, who would have provided their views on the technical nature of the scam as well as the ramifications on the financial sector in the aftermath of the fraud. Instead, the movie lays emphasis on four principal managers at Rampart, and even though there is good information, their opinions only addresses their personal, investigative journey in the Madoff’s case.         

With the story of an astute financial analyst Markopolos, “Chasing Madoff” makes its statement against the incompetency at the SEC and the financial malpractice prevalent on Wall Street. The case constructed by the film, however, merely probes the surface of the underlying issue. It took Markopolos five minutes to conclude Madoff was running a fraud scheme and another four hours to validate his claim. Sadly, Markopolos tips on Madoff were unheard at the SEC, and it was almost after nine years that Madoff was finally charged. The common man’s confidence with the government agency was shattered, and instead of guarding the whistleblower, Markopolos was running for his life from unforeseen threats.

“Chasing Madoff” is presented in an aspect ratio of 1.78:1, and encoded using an AVC codec. The transfer looks good, especially in the interview sequences. The close-ups are tight, with good details. The detail and sharpness is consistent. However, there are scenes where we get static images, and these shots are not as sharp as the actual interviews. The night shots are deliberately grainy, and the black levels are generally acceptable.

The 5.1 DTS-HD Master track is driven by the front channels. The dialogue is consistently clean and audible. In some scenes, the rear channels are triggered. The film can also be viewed with English subtitles.

We get an audio commentary track with director, Jeff Prosserman. Prosserman discusses the documentary’s unique style, the script, and Markopolos’s story for the movie. There are also deleted scenes, an alternate ending, and a trailer.

Parting thoughts:
“Chasing Madoff” is a story of a whistleblower, Harry Markopolos, and how he cracked Madoff’s grand Ponzi scheme. Even at the risk of losing his life, Markopolos pursued Madoff’s case, exposing the weaknesses in the system and highlighting the unflinching appetite for money on Wall Street.   
Because of the structural and pacing issues, the film’s message never becomes effective or fully realized. Still, there are good educational moments, and the movie, at least, needs to be watched for Harry’s story.

Video: 7/10
Audio: 7/10
Extras: 3/10
Final Rating: 6/10

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