Mad as Hell, by David Bax

25 Aug

Anger can be a pretty powerful motivator and there are more than enough reasons to be angry in this world at any given time. Unfortunately, as evidenced by Jeff Prosserman’s new documentary, Chasing Madoff, ire alone is not reason enough to make a movie. While last year saw Inside Job, a very angry documentary indeed, put its rage to vigorously intelligent and focused good use, Prosserman seems to have very little of substance to say apart from the fact that he’s mad.

Chasing Madoff is about the people who spent a decade trying to convince whoever would listen that respected investment advisor Bernard Madoff was a criminal who was engineering a massive Ponzi scheme. These are intelligent, dedicated, good-hearted people who, frankly, deserve to have a movie made about them. Regrettably, Prosserman makes the bewildering decision to portray these guys as if they’re Eliot Ness and the Untouchables. If the film weren’t so thoroughly adolescent and juvenile, you could be forgiven for thinking he’s mocking them.

Also not doing the film’s subjects any favor is the inclusion of hard-boiled reenactments in which they play themselves. The kind of people who willingly, even enthusiastically, spend their lives crunching numbers and poring over paperwork are not likely to be predisposed to acting. That’s not by any means something they should apologize for, though. It’s Prosserman who should apologize for including these embarrassing and wholly unnecessary segments.

The lead of the film, as it were, and the one who suffers through the most of these hollow flourishes, is Harry Markopolos. It was he who’d been trying the longest to reveal Madoff and he is a fascinating man in his own right. One of the most compelling, if intriguingly puzzling, aspects of Markopolos is his utter conviction that there are people who will try to kill him for what he knows. The movie offers nothing at all in support of this hypothesis but it takes no steps toward questioning it either. It is simply presented as if it were true and the lack of awareness of its preposterousness leaves the audience dumbfounded. A better documentarian, such as Errol Morris, might have realized what a tantalizing subject he had and perhaps given over some of the running time to a character study.

Prosserman, though, isn’t making a character study. For the most part, in fact, it’s entirely unclear what kind of movie he’s making. The film haphazardly picks up and then abandons narrative threads throughout. Early on, it takes the unexpected and engaging tack of detailing how, awful as Madoff was, perhaps our fury should really be directed at the Securities and Exchange Commission. This agency that is supposed to enforce federal securities laws was repeatedly presented with compelling and damning evidence of Madoff’s crimes and did precisely nothing every time. Frustratingly, this chapter of the story is over nearly as soon as it starts.

It seems that Jeff Prosserman leaped into the production of his film without knowing what it was about or what inspired the anger that inspired him. There is more than one great documentary to be found among the elements of Chasing Madoff. It’s too bad the filmmaker didn’t recognize any of them.

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