'The Wizard of Lies': The Story of Bernie Madoff

Here's a look at HBO's biopic 'The Wizard of Lies' and the true story of convicted financier Bernie Madoff, who organized the largest Ponzi scheme in U.S. history.
Robert De Niro in Wizard of Lies

Robert De Niro as Bernie Madoff in the HBO biopic 'Wizard of Lies.'

The HBO biopic Wizard of Lies, which premieres tomorrow, stars Robert De Niro as Bernard L. Madoff, the convicted financier who organized the largest Ponzi scheme in U.S. history, worth $64.8 billion on paper. The film is based on the 2011 book Wizard of Lies: Bernie Madoff and the Death of Trust (St. Martin’s), authored by New York Times reporter Diana B. Henriques, who interviewed Madoff in his North Carolina prison in addition to exchanging written correspondence. A feat of comprehensive narrative nonfiction that details Madoff’s story as well as the changing tides of the U.S. stock market, Henriques’s work could have easily spawned a miniseries or multi-part documentary. (An unrelated miniseries, Madoff, starring Richard Dreyfuss and Blythe Danner, aired on ABC in early 2016.) Instead, the HBO biopic, as directed by Barry Levinson (Good Morning, Vietnam, Rain Man, Bugsy, etc.) focuses primarily on the case, which began in December 2008 around the time of the financial crisis, and its impact on the Madoffs. 

As an advisor, Madoff received large amounts of money to be put into investments, however, he instead filtered the pools of cash to cover client redemptions as well as fund his family's posh lifestyle. With no real question of Madoff’s guilt once he confessed, the film provides glimpses into how the crime was pulled off. A memorable, slightly difficult to watch sequence focuses on the plight of the targets of the scheme—real-world victims ranged from workers of modest means to wealthy hedge fund investors—but the members of the Madoff family are kept at the fore, with Wizard of Lies becoming a stark, cold meditation on how the deed produced ripples of alienation, emotional dysfunction and death.

As expected, the film takes liberties with source material. A scene attributing a comparison of wife Ruth Madoff (Michelle Pfeiffer) to actress Goldie Hawn is positioned as coming from Bernard when it in fact came from a friend. Another scene unique to the film showcases the Madoffs at a special event in Montauk, their troubling dynamics laid bare under a party tent. De Niro’s depiction of the financier is that of a stoic mastermind who, when it came to his children, is also a bully and manipulator. He nonetheless maintains great devotion from his sons, especially older sibling Mark. Pfeiffer’s turn as wife Ruth is particularly sobering, a figure who realizes that she’s built her world around husband and kids without taking time to cultivate a life of her own. 

Many have wondered if Ruth and children were privy to the crimes of the patriarch. The film, following the line of thought presented in the book, positions they were unaware, which nonetheless does not stop an angry public from seeking retribution during economically perilous times. Henriques appears onscreen as herself, interviewing a subdued Madoff in prison and serving as a stand-in for the audience. Considering the scope of the case, the film’s brevity leaves questions unanswered: How many others were in the know? How did the victims of Madoff ultimately fare? What changes did the case bring to their worldview? 

Here’s a small sampling of additional facts surrounding Madoff, some of which receive screen treatment as well. 

Personal History

Madoff grew up in Laurelton, Queens with a father who was a struggling business owner. Though at one point contemplating pursuing law, Madoff abandoned the idea and entered the world of over-the-counter stocks. His first account of illicit activity was in 1962, when he allegedly covered up his violation of industry guidelines meant to protect clients from high-risk ventures. Madoff eventually went into arbitrage and established his own firm. He would become a major proponent of automation for stock-trading during the 1970s and was also a key player in connecting the NYSE to regional exchanges in other parts of the country. Ironically, even with his technology push, a clue that Madoff’s dealings were fraudulent came in the form of his account statements, which continued to be printed and mailed in an age when clients of other investment firms could check their accounts electronically. 

Bernie Madoff in 2009

Bernard L. Madoff leaves U.S. Federal Court after a hearing regarding his bail on January 14, 2009 in New York.

Origins of Scheme

Much of the Madoff case still remains a mystery. A big question revolves around when fraudulent activity exactly started. Madoff maintained that the scheme began in 1992, yet there’s ample evidence from Henriques’s accounts that the scheme could have started significantly earlier. (Post-interview, the reporter would come to describe Madoff as a master deceiver.) Several additional Madoff employees were implicated in the case, and arbitrage trader David Krugel would testify as part of a guilty plea that he had started falsifying documents for the company during the early ‘70s. Though Madoff would assert that he acted alone, such a pronouncement was ultimately contradicted by the acts and testimony of Frank DiPascali Jr., as played in the film by Hank Azaria, an employee who was at the forefront of falsifying trade information via computer technology. 

Michelle Pfeiffer and Robert De Niro in Wizard of Lies

Michelle Pfeiffer as Ruth Madoff and Robert De Niro as Bernie Madoff in HBO's 'Wizard of Lies.'

Letting Go of the Lavish Lifestyle

The elder Madoffs initially didn’t seem to either comprehend or care that items purchased and funds received via fraudulent means couldn’t be considered legitimately theirs. Madoff tried to send forth checks totaling $173 million to friends and family once he realized his scheme would be discovered, only to be stopped once his sons turned him in upon receiving legal advice that they could be viewed as accomplices. At one point, before attempting suicide by taking a large amount of Ambien (an act which Ruth would view as a mistake), the Madoffs mailed an array of jewels and personal possessions to loved ones. In addition to their homes and boats, much of the Madoffs’ personal belongings have been auctioned off through the years by the U.S. Marshals Service to provide restitution to victims. 

Family Ties and Tragedy

Ruth initially visited her husband in prison, but eventually cut off all ties to attempt to re-forge her relationship with her sons, who wanted no relationship with their father. Bernie nonetheless continued to call Ruth until she changed her number. The fate of the Madoff sons is disturbingly tragic and Shakespearean in scope. Mark, who started his own e-newsletter, was known to have continuously struggled with the unflinching media attention that he received from the case, which prompted him and his wife to change their last name to Morgan. Mark took his own life in 2010. Younger son Andrew, who had been previously diagnosed with mantle cell lymphoma, stated in an interview that unyielding stress had precipitated the reemergence of the disease. He died from the lymphoma in 2014. 

'The Wizard of Lies' premieres on HBO on May 20, at 8pm ET.