The calamitous descent of Bernie Madoff gets the HBO treatment in “The Wizard of Lies,” starring Robert De Niro

“What he did is beyond my comprehension.”
“What he did is beyond my comprehension.”
Image: HBO
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Robert De Niro, a vaunted thespian who’s played some of the toughest roles in cinema across his 50-year career, isn’t fazed easily. But in the fraudster Bernie Madoff, De Niro found a man difficult to explain.

“What he did is beyond my comprehension,” the actor said. “I did as best I could, but I don’t understand.”

De Niro is set to play Madoff in HBO’s The Wizard of Lies, an upcoming film based on the book of the same name about the disgraced financier’s $65 billion Ponzi scheme and its aftermath. The actor, along with director Barry Levinson, producer Jane Rosenthal, and the book’s author, Diana B. Henriques, appeared at a panel for the film at the Television Critics Association winter press tour in Pasadena last week.

Henriques said that what sets HBO’s film apart from other dramatizations of the Madoff saga is “its compassion towards the victim, its empathy and compassion towards how the victims are portrayed.”

Though some of Madoff’s clients who lost money were wealthy and famous, many of the victims were anything but, she said. “You have to make a distinction between a handful of longtime, very wealthy investors and the vast bulk of Madoff victims who were not bold-faced names,” Henriques said. “They were not ‘big bank account’ people, and they were just devastated.”

The first teaser for the film, released last week by HBO and set to Marilyn Manson’s cover of “I Put a Spell on You,” burned with violent visual metaphor, even though the crime itself was not explicitly violent:

While Madoff was sentenced to two lifetimes in prison, some of those caught up in the scandal, including his own son Mark, committed suicide.

A longer trailer showed at the TCA panel was set to a haunting cover of “King of Pain” by the Police, further underscoring the film’s ominous tone. The Wizard of Lies comes out on HBO in May.