HBO’s ‘The Wizard of Lies’ Is True Summer Movie Counter-Programming

A team-up of talents like this would've been a big, splashy theatrical release not too long ago. The multiplex's loss is HBO's gain.

A couple of years back, we took a look the disappearing middle of mainstream moviemaking – how mid-budget comedies and dramas, movies made by and for grown-ups, had all but disappeared from the landscape, leaving merely the polar opposites of micro-budget indies and franchise-friendly blockbusters. Many of those who used to make those movies in the middle have gone to television, and have gained the most notice by taking on ambitious limited series like The Knick and the Twin Peaks revival. But some have stuck with good, old-fashioned made-for-TV movies, which is how we end up with an HBO original starring Robert De Niro and Michelle Pfeiffer, and directed by Barry Levinson – a combination of talent that would have demanded a major theatrical release, say, a decade and a half ago. The multiplex’s loss is cable’s gain.

Their film is called The Wizard of Lies, a dramatization of Diana Henriques’s deeply reported account of the rise and fall of fraudster Bernie Madoff. In fact, Henriques plays herself, so (unlike it most films) her test exchanges with De Niro’s Madoff seem like real interviews, conducted by a real journalist. In her voice-over, she explains that he seemed, to her, “earnest” and “trustworthy,” and why shouldn’t he? He managed to swindle smart people out of $65 billion.

Wizard isn’t really a biopic – Levinson and his screenwriters close in tightly on the period around his arrest, with some glances at what came before (it functions as a portrait of their lifestyle, one of consumption, ignorance, half-truths, and misogyny), and of the period when it started to fall apart. There’s a great sequence of Madoff frantically juggling his investors and their money at a black-tie event (Levinson gives us copious close-ups of the drums as the band plays, giving the sequence an elevated pulse), and a heightened middle section with De Niro and Hank Azaria (as his chief book-cooker) trying, desperately, to Scotch tape it together, which provides a fascinating peek behind the Wizard’s curtain. And as it surveys the fallout of his descent, the story takes some shocking turns if you weren’t paying attention after he went off to the slammer – which let’s be honest, most of us weren’t. As Madoff points out himself, we needed a villain at that moment, and we got one, and somehow, one was enough.

De Niro plays Madoff as a blank slate, a daring choice that mostly works. We see his desperation and his anger, and get a sense of the hubris that drove him (“I couldn’t admit that I’d failed,” he admits). It’s a marvelously opaque performance, miles apart on the surface but similar in its guardedness to his exquisite work in Heat. The big emotional beats go to Madoff’s wife Ruth (a tart and terrific Michelle Pfieffer) and his kids (Alessandro Nivola and Nathan Darrow); the film dives into their claustrophobic, paranoid headspace, and is empathetic to them, to a point. (“I want my life back,” Nivola says. Well, that was a popular sentiment.) They always said they didn’t know what he was up to, not really, and the film seems to take them at their word – while still asking complicated questions of sympathy and (timeliness alert!) complicity.

Director Barry Levinson has a hell of a checkered filmography; he went on one of the all-time filmmaking winning streaks in the ‘80s and early ‘90s (Diner, The Natural, Tin Men, Good Morning Vietnam, Rain Man, Avalon, Bugsy) before losing his rhythm and, occasional successes aside, never really getting it back. His 21st century theatrical films have been, to put it mildly, misses (things like Man of the Year, What Just Happened, The Humbling, and Rock the Kasbah). But in 2010, he made the excellent You Don’t Know Jack, another made-for-HBO biographical drama (that one concerned Jack Kevorkian) starring a modern acting icon (Al Pacino, in that case). Why his made-for-HBO collaborations with these actors are of such higher quality than those created for the theatrical market is a question that’s probably tied up in the intricacies of the mediums and their creative processes, but for whatever reason, Levinson (and, frankly, these actors) seem to be flourishing here and floundering there.

Levinson’s direction of these telefilms is undeniably cinematic – they don’t have the flat look and leaden camerawork that tend to come to mind when we hear the words “made for TV movie.” (One particular sequence, an Ambien-induced fever-dream stroll through Madoff’s subconscious, is especially striking.) But he’s also aware that the canvas is smaller, and uses that to his advantage. When Madoff is in court, responding to each of the charges with an emotionless “Guilty,” Levinson’s camera pushes in close, uncomfortably so, and takes out the judge’s voice entirely. We’re merely looking at his face and hearing his voice repeating that word: “Guilty. Guilty. Guilty.” Levinson keeps going back to those tight close-ups: as he hears the statements from his victims in court, as he makes one of his own, as he tries to work the phones one more time behind the prison walls, or as he lets his last question to his biographer hang in the air. Time after time, Levinson stays on that face. Robert De Niro’s face. It’s the best special effect of them all.

“The Wizard of Lies” airs Saturday night on HBO.