Madoff’s multibillion-dollar mirage arrives on TV

“Madoff,” a miniseries about Bernie Madoff, known as the mastermind of the biggest financial fraud in American history, airs at 8 p.m. Wednesday and Thursday on ABC.

At the McCarran airport in Las Vegas not long ago, I handed my ticket and driver’s license to the TSA agent, a woman who appeared to be in her mid-60s. She examined my return ticket to Newark, New Jersey, and then, seemingly out of the blue, looked up and said, “I wish I could move back to New York.”

“What’s stopping you?” I asked, perhaps too glibly.

“Madoff,” she replied sadly. “He took everything. I never thought I would be working this late in life.”

Bernard L. Madoff, of course, was the mastermind of the biggest financial fraud in U.S. history. For decades, investors gave him their money, believing he was generating safe, steady returns, year after year, in good markets and bad. The truly wealthy invested with him, but so did thousands of people like that TSA agent, people who handed him their life savings, their retirement funds and their children’s college funds. They felt blessed to have found Madoff.

Then, in December 2008, they discovered that it had all been a mirage. Instead of buying stocks with their money, Madoff had been running the biggest Ponzi scheme the world has ever known; when it collapsed, his investors lost $65 billion. Or rather, they thought they did; most of that money never existed in the first place. Within a matter of months, Madoff, who was then 71, had pleaded guilty and was sentenced to 150 years in prison.

Inevitably, journalists struggled to understand Madoff’s psyche, not to mention whether his family had known what he was doing, and how he had pulled it off. Newspaper articles led to magazine articles, which led to books, some better than others.

Now, eight years later, come the screen adaptations, the first of which, a four-hour ABC miniseries called, simply, “Madoff,” will air at 8 p.m. Wednesday and Thursday.

(An HBO movie is also in the works with Robert De Niro and Michelle Pfeiffer.)

Supposedly based on the 2009 book “The Madoff Chronicles: Inside the Secret World of Bernie and Ruth,” by Brian Ross, ABC’s chief investigative correspondent, it stars Richard Dreyfuss as Madoff and Blythe Danner as his wife, Ruth.

I say “supposedly,” because the miniseries tells its story far more lucidly than Ross’ scattershot book. It is always difficult to convey the intricacies of financial fraud on the screen, but “Madoff” does an exceptionally good job of it.

By the time the miniseries is over, we’ve learned what a Ponzi scheme is: pretending to invest people’s money but actually making payouts to exiting investors with new money from incoming investors. We’ve seen the Securities and Exchange Commission conduct an investigation into Madoff’s firm, and fail to make the one critical phone call that would have exposed the scheme. We’ve watched Madoff and his key lieutenant, Frank DiPascali Jr., rig each month’s statements so that they arrive at a predetermined gain.

And although “Madoff” can’t explain what’s going through Madoff’s mind during the decades he harbors his secret, we do get to watch him pull it off with an incredible bluster and nerve. He actually rages at the regulators holed up in his office, examining his books, regulators who could expose him if they were to do their jobs right. He threatens to toss big investors who have upset him out of the fund, even though he doesn’t have the money to pay them back. We watch him take money from Elie Wiesel, knowing he will even defraud the beloved Nobel Prize winner and Holocaust survivor. Over and over, we see him look people in the eye, lunch with them and laugh with them, even as he’s betraying them.

This is never truer than when he is around his family. Although Madoff was a philanderer, the miniseries correctly portrays him as someone who preferred being with family. His sons, his brother, his niece and Ruth all worked at the firm, although in the legitimate part of the business. (The Ponzi scheme was conducted several floors below Madoff’s main office.) They spent much of their free time together.

Indeed, to a large extent, “Madoff” is about his family as much as it is about him. They are portrayed as his most tragic victims. His sons, Mark and Andrew (played by Tom Lipinski and Danny Deferrari), were the ones who turned him in after he confessed to them that he had been running a Ponzi scheme.

Despondent, buried in litigation and obsessed with the scandal, Mark committed suicide on the second anniversary of his father’s arrest. (Andy died of cancer in 2014.)

As for Ruth, she lost virtually everything, including her relationship with her sons when she refused to turn against her husband, as they had done.

Although Ross hints in his book that she may have known about the scheme — he notes that she made several multimillion-dollar withdrawals before Madoff’s confession — the miniseries portrays her as a victim.

“From the materials we had and the people we talked to, we could not come to the conclusion that she knew,” said Linda Berman, one of the show’s executive producers. Berman added that Danner spent a day with Ruth Madoff as she prepared for the role; visits like that invariably arouse sympathy.

However much Madoff’s family may or may not have been victimized, what is largely missing from “Madoff” are all those other victims, the ones who, like that TSA agent I met in Las Vegas, entrusted their life savings to Bernie Madoff and lost everything. Almost all the scenes in “Madoff” involve the rich; only once do we see him meet a small investor, a woman whose husband has died and who is considering withdrawing her daughter’s college money from the fund. Madoff writes her a check, which she then rips up, saying that she will trust him, just as her husband did.

Toward the end, there is also a short montage of small investors who had their money with Madoff. But the scene feels dutiful, lacking the kind of empathy that the miniseries heaps on Ruth Madoff.

The truth is, in virtually all the journalism about Bernie Madoff, his victims have gotten short shrift.

“Victims are always an afterthought,” said Ilene Kent, a Madoff victim I got to know when I was writing about Madoff. The fascination with Madoff, and with Ruth and Andy and Mark and his brother, Peter (who is serving a 10-year prison sentence), has caused us to skip lightly over the enormous pain he inflicted on so many people.

That “Madoff” has this flaw as well is not surprising. It’s just sad to see.