Television Review | 'Frontline: The Madoff Affair' Lured Down a Rabbit Hole, Hoping for Happy Returns
Television Review | 'Frontline: The Madoff Affair'
Lured Down a Rabbit Hole, Hoping for Happy Returns
Published: May 11, 2009
The story of Bernard L. Madoff and his Ponzi scheme has unfolded in an enervating, unsatisfying way for those of us whose only role in the debacle is to stand and gawk. Mr. Madoff’s sudden capitulation, and his kamikaze claim of total guilt, have simultaneously frustrated our curiosity and insulted our common sense.


More Arts NewsWe can hope that investigators, or investigative reporters, will eventually get to the bottom of how he did it and who knew he was doing it. In the meantime, PBS has done an entertaining job of skimming the surface in “The Madoff Affair,” a “Frontline” report that has its premiere on Tuesday night.

The “Frontline” correspondent Martin Smith provides a concise history of Mr. Madoff’s financial career, from nepotism (a job with his father-in-law’s accounting firm) to incarceration. He talks to reporters, including Diana B. Henriques of The New York Times, and expert witnesses like Harvey L. Pitt, the former Securities and Exchange Commission chairman.

A number of people who lost money down Mr. Madoff’s rabbit hole (or claim to have) are given their say, and the suicide of the French investor René-Thierry Magon de la Villehuchet provides one of the program’s narrative threads. But the overall tone tends more toward farce than tragedy.

None of the central figures, like Madoff family members or principals of the Fairfield Greenwich Group, one of Mr. Madoff’s largest feeder funds, spoke to PBS on the record. But several people embroiled in the case did sit for interviews, including the hedge fund executive Sandra Manzke, who acknowledges calling Mr. Madoff to congratulate him when his “returns” outpaced the market last fall, and Michael Bienes, an accountant who began feeding investors to Mr. Madoff in the 1960s.

Mr. Bienes is such an engaging, larger-than-life presence that you stop wondering whether he’s telling the truth when he denies any knowledge of the Ponzi scheme and you just enjoy the show. How did he think Mr. Madoff could consistently return 20 percent?

“How do you split an atom? I know that you can split them, I don’t know how you do it.” Was this easy money? “Easy-peasy. Like a money machine.” Did he ever think it was too easy? “I said: ‘I’m a little too lucky. Why am I so fortunate?’ And then I came up with the answer. ... God wanted us to have this.”

And finally, some words to live by: “We never were pigs. That is the one thing that kept us going. We were never pigs.”

Beyond the personal testimonies, there’s little in “The Madoff Affair” that hasn’t already been reported and rereported. But watching the homogeneous parade of faces and lifestyles that made up Mr. Madoff’s world might reinforce one of the affair’s primary lessons: don’t give your money to someone who looks and talks too much like you.


The Madoff Affair

On Tuesday night on most PBS stations (check local listings).

Written and produced by Marcela Gaviria and Martin Smith; Chris Durrance, co-producer; David Fanning, series executive producer; Mr. Smith, correspondent. Produced by Frontline with RainMedia.

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