The best documentaries are usually the ones that guide you to a desired idea without really letting on that you’re being guided in the first place. Even the most slanted documentary can, through sleight of hand, misguide you on how you came to the conclusion the makers of the film wanted you to. Documentarian Errol Morris is a true master, and love or hate him, so is Michael Moore. By the deeds of Chasing Madoff alone, Jeff Prosserman is not.
Chasing Madoff, at its base, is about the nine years spent by Harry Markopolos and an assorted team of investigators building a case against convicted Ponzi scheme mastermind Bernard Madoff. During that time, Markopolos and his peers worked to great extents to uncover the fraud Madoff was committing, but were repeatedly ignored by the SEC and various news organizations. Unfortunately, what is really occurring on the surface of this documentary is an attack on the audience.
The fundamental problem with this documentary is that the subject matter is interesting to begin with; Markopolos’s tireless investigation coupled with the fact that Madoff was only brought down because he turned himself in is enough for a compelling documentary. However, Prosserman either lacked faith in the strength of the subject matter alone, or he’s a showman seeking to exploit the story in order to attack and manipulate the audience much in the same way a genre film is designed to do. I’m choosing to believe in the latter.
Throughout the film, we are treated to numerous reenactments, almost-clever editing tricks, and a highly manipulated score to bring a blockbuster style movie experience to a documentary. It’s pretty clear early on that Markopolos is paranoid; he believes that his family’s and his own lives were at stake, and, whether his fears are founded or not, they are clearly enhanced by the works of fiction.
Without ever truly indicating that Madoff and his peers are dangerous, life-threatening gangsters, we are continuously being subjected to images from old news reels and gangster films in order to convince us that that is what Madoff is about. There’s a sequence in which we are shown, through recreation, that Markopolos used to check his family van every time before using it to make sure there were no car bombs; then, as we see Markopolos and his twin sons in the van and him turning the key, the film cuts to a shot under the van that then shakes, accompanied by the sound of an explosion, faking us out to what “could’ve happened.” Prosserman even goes so far as to show us a crime scene photo of a deceased body for a shock factor at one point.
What might even be worse is that Markopolos clearly is about this idea, as it involves him acting out most of the film. Everything from him looking through documents, running numbers, and taking care of his kids to him putting on and taking off a gun is added for dramatic effect. Meanwhile, the rest of the story that is actually interesting and involves some other people is almost entirely ignored for long parts of the film.
One of the few strengths the documentary actually shows is when it is focused on Madoff and the investigation. While the film does little to really make clear to an unknowing audience what a Ponzi scheme is, it does explain what went down, and the nature of the lifespan of a Ponzi scheme. The investigation Markopolos and co. underwent is intriguing, especially considering how much information they gathered, the blatant conclusions the information led to, and the outright refusal by government and news organizations to do anything about it until Madoff turned himself in, causing a huge whiplash of media attention, which then eventually led to hearings and, to date, very few arrests.
If Prosserman had made more tactful and insightful decisions, and chosne to focus on the excitement of the story itself instead of dressing the documentary up as a rollercoaster ride, which it is not, then this would’ve been a much stronger film, or at least a good one. Which is a shame, considering the dedication these people put into the investigation against Madoff. Their efforts and their story deserve better.
Final Grade: D-