Part recent-history documentary, part puff-piece profile, Chasing Madoff details the efforts to uncover the titular scumbag’s $50 billion Ponzi scheme by financial analyst Harry Markopolos. As he attempted to inform the SEC and mainstream press about Bernie Madoff’s scam a full nine years before it came to light in 2008, Markopolos is a figure whose whistleblowing efforts are worthy of praise, and Jeff Prosserman’s documentary (based on Markopolos’s book No One Would Listen) digs deep enough into the number-crunching details of that inquiry to pay it adequate justice.
Yet laying out the means by which Markopolos exposed Madoff—and, more crucially still, how regulatory agencies and journalists, all cowed by Madoff’s power and influence, ignored these claims and, in doing so, allowed more investors to be hoodwinked—isn’t enough for Prosserman, who spends inordinate energy deifying Markopolos. Courtesy of talking-head interviews enhanced with pointless CG, as well as over-the-top staged recreations that depict Markopolos loading and cocking firearms (for protection against death threats) or tellingly teaching his kids about predators while out in the woods, the film plays like a goofy celebrity profile designed to cast its subject as a paragon of crusading American virtue. “If I see a fraud, I’m going to stop it,” Markopolos proclaims proudly, though his failure to actually halt Madoff (who turned himself in after the ‘08 market collapse helped crush his scheme) also drives Markopolos to confess, “I’m no hero.” Those statements may be sincere, but the fawning personal-life segments of Chasing Madoff—a flip through his wedding album, or a laughable dramatization of him checking his car for bombs, which ends with the sound of an explosion that never actually occurred—are overdone, and undermine the film’s compelling reportage about Madoff’s ruse and downfall.
Driven almost exclusively by the comments of Markopolos and his associates, Prosserman’s doc becomes afflicted with tunnel vision; its scant voices eventually come across as not just monotonous but self-serving, puffing up their David-versus-Goliath nobility while justifiably railing against an SEC that, as Congressional hearing footage openly articulates, failed to perform its basic obligation to protect American investors. Whereas those C-SPAN snippets exude (and audio/video clips of Madoff elicit) real fury, too much of the material is superficially congratulatory or gimmicky—or, often, both, as with rapid-fire montages of images (blood dripping from a hand, police badges, money burning, crime-scene photographs to hammer home the mortal danger Markopolos’s work put him in) that prove stale, second-rate attempts to mimic the stylized aesthetics of Errol Morris.