Most of us know about Bernie Madoff's stunning, decades-in-the-making $50 billion Wall Street fraud scheme and the evil it wrought on thousands of investors when it finally collapsed in 2008.
Less well known is the equally riveting story of Madoff whistle-blower Harry Markopolos, who waged a lonely decadelong campaign to uncover Madoff as a crook.
Documentarian Jeff Prosserman tries to make up for that gap with Chasing Madoff, an uneven chronicle of Markopolos' Sisyphean efforts to persuade the Securities and Exchange Commission to investigate Madoff.
Markopolos was an options trader with the Boston firm Rampart Investment Management when his boss asked him to devise a product to compete with the amazing returns generated by a mysterious hedge-fund manager. That manager turned out to be Madoff, who secretly ran a wealth-management service, giving him unfettered access to hundreds of clients' entire fortunes.
In the opening scenes of Chasing Madoff, Markopolos says he quickly saw Madoff's pitch was a scam. It took much longer - nine years - for federal regulators to notice, even though Markopolos repeatedly warned them about Madoff.
Madoff's scheme eventually imploded during the financial crisis of 2008. He pleaded guilty the next year to several fraud and money-laundering charges and is serving a 150-year prison sentence.
Prosserman's film does a good job of explaining Madoff's Ponzi scheme. Madoff roped in new investors with the ultimate lure, telling them they were joining the most exclusive of clubs.
For Madoff's plan to work, he needed to pull in as many investors as possible so he could use their money to pay earnings owed to his other investors, literally robbing Peter to pay Paul.
Viewers get very little about Madoff himself. While the film is primarily about Markopolos, it makes little sense without much insight into his nemesis.
Chasing Madoff fails in virtually every other respect.
Instead of solid reporting, it focuses on Markopolos' overwrought fears that Madoff might have him murdered, something the film never even tries to substantiate.
Trouble is, the film clocks in at 91 minutes, but has barely 60 minutes of actual content. For filler, Prosserman crams in irrelevant clips about the 1929 stock market crash, sepia-toned crime-scene photos of gangland shootings, and ludicrous symbolic footage of money thrown into a bonfire. One shot has Markopolos walking with an actual target (from a gun range) on his back.
Worse, we're tortured with asinine film noirish reenactments of Markopolos handling his various guns or sitting at his desk exuding despondence. His fascinating story deserves better than this ham-handed, careless tripe.
Contact staff writer Tirdad Derakhshani at 215-854-2736 or firstname.lastname@example.org.