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Chasing Madoff - Movie Review - 2011

To Catch A Crook

About.com Rating 3 Star Rating

By

Chasing Madoff - Movie Review - 2011

'Chasing Madoff' Poster Art

Cohen Media Group
Chasing Madoff gives us another insightful view about what has caused America's economic woes. The film shows that an investigator named Harry Makopolos discovered Bernie Madoff's enormous Ponzi scheme and repeatedly reported it to authorities for decades before Madoff was indicted. Had Makopolos' warnings been heeded, Madoff clients -- private investors and organized investment funds -- might have been spared their devastating losses.

Makopolos is the lead character in this film, which views the Madoff case from his perspective. The film is based on his best-selling book about his involvement in the Madoff affair.

Documentary Drama

The Makopolos-Madoff story has real life drama. Ripe with elements of cloak and dagger intrigue, investigative antics, sob story victims and a whistle blowing crusader, it lends itself well to cinematic expression.

With all that dark drama at play, it's no surprise that filmmaker Jeff Prosserman chose to cloak his documentary in film noir style. It's an obvious choice for assaying to capture and exploit every moment of suspense in this sordid story of major league fraud.

Prosserman taps noir style in several ways. Some of the film is shot in black and white, for example, and noir's shadowy lighting and characteristic camera angles are used. And, noir resonates when when Makopolos and his team of investigators, introduced for their on camera interviews, are positioned side by side, facing the camera, as if they were standing in a police line up. At first, they tell their stories as though they were testifying on camera, up close and personal and directly to you. Then, while their commentaries are continued as voice over narration, their on camera close ups segue into revelatory archival footage or into reenactments that illustrate various salient plot points in the decade-long Makopolos vs Madoff saga.

Archival footage shows Madoff going about the business of fraud, and includes his arrest and perp walk. Reenactments establish dramatic details, such as guns being loaded and documents being sorted, studied and presented as evidence.

The film's editing emphasizes its drama, and there's barely a moment when suspenseful music doesn't underscore the images on screen. Typically noir.

Style Over Substance

Harry Makopolos in 'Chasing Madoff'

Cohen Media Group
The use of cinematic conceits such as film noir is completely acceptable and becoming more commonplace in nonfiction film production, especially as director/producers seek to attract a wider range of audiences to watch documentary films. That said, there are questions about whether a documentarian's use of a specific narrative style -- not only film noir elements, but animation, the use of actors to stage events and other devices, as well -- is appropriate or arbitrary. Does the style effectively serve the story and present a clearer, more compelling expose of the film's subject? More specifically, how does noir style elucidate the Makopolos-Madoff affair?

Mind you, Chasing Madoff would not be an easy documentary to make, especially if it's expected to be suspenseful. After all, the story -- including its cast of characters and denouement -- is well known thanks to widespread and ongoing media coverage, and to Makopolos' own best-selling book, Nobody Would Listen, upon which the movie is based. The book, in which Makopolos clearly reveals his character and personality, also eliminates most elements of surprise about the film's leading character. And, much of the archival footage has already been viewed over and over again. So, where do you go for suspense and drama? Again, film noir is an obvious choice.

Unfortunately, in Chasing Madoff, the ubiquitous noir elements, though effectively realized, simply seem to emphasize the film's shortcomings -- especially its repetitive nature.

Prosserman scores the same points so often he undermines their value.

Stylistic Shortcomings

Those reenactments of guns being loaded appear time and again as Makopolos reiterates ad nauseum that he was afraid he and his family would be killed by Madoff's henchmen.

Over and over, the voices of Makpolos and his cronies -- Frank Casey and others -- spin similar stories about their investigative adventures. Time and again, they recount their roles in the discovery of Madoff's corruption, tell of frustrations about being ignored by authorities, and declare Makopolos' almost missionary-like sense of purpose. But, what's established here in several short sentence takes up lots of time and scores of shots in the film.

Overly overtly dramatic, the documentary hammers home plot points and characters' feelings, but we're never galvanized by the scenario's development, nor do we feel a build in the intensity of tension and urgency.

In fact, the dramatic hoopla brought by noir style creates an almost satirical atmosphere -- one which is, I assume, unintentional.

Marking Makopolos

In real life, Makopolos is clearly dedicated to justice. Worthy of respect and praise, he's the hero who tried to end Madoff's reign of malfeasance.

On camera, Makopolos is appealingly quirky, but lacks the charisma of a noir leading man. Sadly, presenting him as such takes away some of the gravitas he undoubtedly has in person.

Missing the Message

While Chasing Madoff delivers Makopolos' unique perspective on Madoff's fraud and, more importantly, exposes authorities and the system that failed to curtail it, the documentary isn't a compelling film. But it's important. See it for its facts, not its style.

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Film Details:

  • Title: Chasing Madoff
  • Director: Jeff Prosserman
  • Release Date: August 26, 2011 (limited)
  • Running Time: 91 mins.
  • Parents Advisory: Advisory for content
  • Location: USA
  • Language: English
  • Distribution Company: Cohen Media Group

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