A lot of “The Wizard of Lies,” HBO’s powerful new Bernie Madoff movie, takes place in Robert De Niro’s eyes. Playing the builder of one of history’s largest Ponzi schemes, De Niro gives us a poker-faced man whose cold gaze can out-wait whoever he’s talking to. He is unnervingly, aggressively calm.
Director Barry Levinson takes us close to those eyes again and again, looking with us for the key to the man’s soul — for glimmers of the evil that led him to ruin his victims’ and his family’s lives, for flinches of guilt and shame, for the glint of egomania, for tears at his own losses. But we come up mostly empty, as De Niro expertly delivers evasion, aloofness, concealment. Despite our hunger for a familiar arc — the good man gone bad for his family, say — De Niro gives us a bespectacled cipher. Pay no attention to that man behind the curtain, he seems to be saying.
Not that “The Wizard of Lies” ought to give us Walter White from “Breaking Bad” or some kind of grand anti-hero. The movie, which premieres Saturday at 8 p.m., is largely about that core lack, about how an ordinary but ambitious man like Madoff can skate his way to the top — and around the SEC — if he’s willing to shut down his humanity. Rather than come up with an answer to the mystery of Madoff — a Lifetime movie would probably be more willing — screenwriters Sam Levinson, Sam Baum, and John Burnham Schwartz leave reason out of it. Their Madoff reveals himself through his actions, enough said.
De Niro does a fine job projecting the various shadings of Madoff’s slippery personality, not least of all the man’s quiet but distinct contempt for all the “greedy” people who believed in him. He has one or two explicit scenes when Madoff’s rage clearly emerges and his petulance flares. As the 2008 financial meltdown heats up, he has a meltdown of his own at the dinner table, humiliating and yelling at his 8-year-old granddaughter in an excruciatingly good scene. His investors are asking for their money, and he senses the jig is up — so much that he can barely stand, from back pain. But before and after that point, De Niro’s Madoff returns to his usual distant persona.
The film is framed with the prison interviews that Madoff granted to New York Times reporter Diana B. Henriques, author of the 2011 book “The Wizard of Lies.” In those bleak scenes (in which Henriques plays herself), you sense that he has a phenomenal sense of denial — a quality, it seems, every person who perpetrates a Ponzi scheme must have, since inevitably the scheme will crash. Henriques points out to Madoff that he was willing to leave his fraudulent business to his sons, Mark (Alessandro Nivola) and Andrew (Nathan Darrow), risking the possibility that they would eventually be sent to jail. He defends himself, only half aware of how empty his argument sounds. Also, he insists to her that he turned himself in to the FBI in 2008, even after she reminds him that his sons did that. His self-delusion is remarkably deep.
The film looks into Ruth Madoff a bit, with Michelle Pfeiffer doing a decent job portraying a mixture of muted anger at Bernie and loyalty to him. And the Madoff sons also get attention, as we watch them become tabloid symbols of financial betrayal, a position that drives Mark to suicide two years to the day after Madoff’s arrest. But all these characters, including Bernie, come into focus only after “The Wizard of Lies” sets up the Madoff case, giving us an obligatory survey on the crime and how it played out. That material, which fills the first third of the film, is unnecessary. Once we turn to the psychological fallout, and Levinson gives us a more intimate point of view, “The Wizard of Lies” is captivating.
THE WIZARD OF LIES
Starring: Robert De Niro, Michelle Pfeiffer, Alessandro Nivola, Kelly AuCoin, Hank Azaria, Lily Rabe, Nathan Darrow
On HBO, Saturday at 8 p.m.Matthew Gilbert can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @MatthewGilbert.