The party's over: Madoff, Billions, and a sober new wave of financial dramas

Almost eight years after the financial collapse, film and TV try to process the wreckage


After a national tragedy, we grieve, we process, we debate — and eventually, we dramatize. Five years after 9/11, Hollywood gave us not one but two feature films about deadliest attack on American soil. There was Paul Greengrass' United 93, a sober thriller set aboard a hijacked plane, and there was Oliver Stone's World Trade Center, which starred Nicolas Cage's mustache. Two years later came The Hurt Locker, Kathryn Bigelow's Oscar-winning look at the war America launched in response to the 9/11 attacks. Four years after that, Bigelow returned with Zero Dark Thirty, the story of the manhunt for Osama bin Laden. And in 2014, Clint Eastwood delivered the Iraq war veteran biopic American Sniper.

Such movies proliferated because no event in this century has captured the American imagination like 9/11 and its ambiguous aftermath, the War On Terror. Plus, violence easily lends itself to the camera, and even in this postmodern age, the public loves narratives with clearly demarcated heroes and villains. Give or take a few dozen volumes of geopolitical context, these are easy stories to tell.

This stuff is not sexy or easy to visualize

That feels especially true by comparison now that filmmakers are attempting to depict the next time Lower Manhattan collapsed upon itself and sent ripples to the farthest reaches of the Earth. The global financial crisis of 2008 cost Americans $19.2 trillion in household wealth, and 8.8 million people lost their jobs. Its practical impact on the life of most US citizens was far more catastrophic than that of 9/11. Yet few people understand how or why it happened, and (perhaps relatedly) rather than explosions, its principal drama involved lots of complicated math. This stuff is not easy to visualize and only sexy insofar as money in unimaginable quantities is always sexy. Still, such a momentous occasion demands a film adaptation or three, and almost a decade out from the Wall Street meltdown, they're all hitting at once.

Most imminently, ABC's two-part miniseries Madoff airs this Wednesday and Thursday. Richard Dreyfuss stars as Bernie Madoff, the three-time NASDAQ chair who went to prison at age 71 for running a Ponzi scheme regarded as the biggest financial fraud in American history. For decades, Madoff convinced marks rich and poor they were buying into an exclusive private hedge fund. Rather than investing their money, he funneled it to previous clients, who believed the payments to be steady returns on prudent financial management. When his ruse was revealed in December 2008, 65 billion imaginary dollars went poof.

Madoff, based on Bryan Ross' 2009 book The Madoff Chronicles, is the first of two TV movies about the same white-collar crook. The second — The Wizard Of Lies, adapted from Diane Henriques' book of the same name — stars Robert De Niro and will air on HBO later this year. The latter movie will surely err on the side of prestige; in the meantime we get the network primetime version. That might sound like a slight, but with this subject matter, straightforward storytelling is a plus. Yes, everything unfolds with the anti-nuance of your average network crime drama, but most of us plebes need Madoff's blunt play-by-play narration to understand the mechanics of his con.

Dreyfuss plays Madoff with a combination of grandfatherly tenderness and brazen sleaze. He's magnanimous when treated like the benevolent king he believes himself to be. When crossed, he doubles down on rodent hubris, slinging lines like "I'm a rainmaker. I make it rain!" He's as offputting as any unrepentant blowhard, but many of his monologues contain kernels of truth.

For instance: "I'm just a dirty little fish swimming around in a dirty pond," Madoff exclaims, incredulous that he's become a national pariah. "The biggest banks in the world sell their customers assets they know are toxic, and the ratings board gives them a rubber stamp of approval, and the politicians then tell the public that Wall Street is gonna police itself. Ha! And then they all get bailed out... And they call me a fraud?!" Never has "Everybody's doing it!" been sufficient grounds for destroying people's lives, but it's hard to argue with Madoff's assessment of the big picture.

The Big Short

That larger context of corruption is the subject of another recent Great Recession postmortem by, of all people, Anchorman/Talladega Nights director Adam McKay. His Oscar-nominated film The Big Short, repurposed from Michael Lewis' book of the same name, aims to explain how the economy bottomed out by zeroing in on the handful of experts who saw it coming years in advance. (How? "They looked.")

Christian Bale, Steve Carell, Ryan Gosling, and Brad Pitt play fictionalized versions of real people who recognized the banking industry was propped up on a rotten foundation of overvalued bonds built from shoddy mortgage loans. Their tangentially overlapping storylines are collaged together with assorted American ephemera via quick cuts and vibrant music; McKay skips across scenes and soundtracks as if toggling between browser tabs. Many characters break the fourth wall, particularly a trio of unbilled celebrities who show up to explain key economic jargon in layman's terms. It's Ocean's 11 as told from the perspective of a few morally dubious security guards, and it somehow renders this stuff both comprehensible and fun — at least until the tidal wave of the reality of the situation finally washes over everything, leaving you to shake your fist at the lot of them along with Madoff.

These kinds of stories are not new; Madoff and The Big Short just approach them from a fresh angle. The focus in financial stories tends to be the salacious misbehavior of a few gluttonous rogues. Gordon Gekko's greed in Wall Street was aspirational. Jordan Belfort's rise, fall, and rebound in The Wolf Of Wall Street was supposed to reflect 2008's bloat, burst, and bailout the same way M*A*S*H used the Korean War to comment on Vietnam. But as seen through Martin Scorsese's camera, Leo DiCaprio's self-destructive rampage couldn't help but be glamorous.

These latest based-on-a-true-stories are not so drunk on excess. They comb through recent history in disbelief, condemning the short-sighted avarice that fueled the economy's collapse. Madoff's title character is a slithering villain, not a sympathetic antihero. When The Big Short's various protagonists try to convince their peers of the danger hidden in plain sight, they're aghast to encounter indifference at every turn. Madoff and The Big Short each allude to unspeakable damage in real people's lives, and their view of the future is even bleaker: both films imply that although we should have learned our lesson by now, it's only a matter of time before this happens again.

What to make, then, of Billions, Showtime's addictive new series about a billionaire hedge fund manager (Homeland's Damian Lewis) and the US attorney obsessed with taking him down (Paul Giamatti)? Lewis plays Bobby Axelrod, a magnetic 9/11 survivor who runs his firm in suburban Connecticut, miles away from Wall Street. Beloved in his community but under surveillance from police and press, Lewis openly pines for a bygone era when no one would try to egg his limousine. "When did it become a crime to succeed in this country?" he asks a reporter. With society still making sense of 2008's wreckage, have we already gone back to romanticizing well-heeled white men and their fuck-you money?

Not exactly. Lewis plays Axelrod with a contagious bravado Homeland's Nicholas Brody never afforded him. He relishes leveraging his net worth to sabotage rivals, settle old scores, and buy obscenely luxurious beachfront property. But so far Billions is positioning "Axe" as the clear bad guy and Giamatti's Chuck Rhoades as the fundamentally good man charged with nabbing him. Like Bale's character in The Big Short, Axelrod is into Metallica, but rather than marking him as an iconoclast, Axe's Master Of Puppets T-shirt seems to be a not-so-subtle message about his penchant for malevolent string-pulling. If that didn't get the point across, there's plenty more concrete evidence that Axe is engaging in dirty business, whereas Rhoades is routinely framed as a man of conviction whose intense self-scrutiny happens to manifest itself in a BDSM fetish. (He's also, as seen in the most recent episode, the kind of stickler who would force a man to pick up dog poop with his hands when he leaves home without a bag.)

a worldwide embrace of mercenary self-interest

Still, even in an era of widespread contempt for the one percent, and even on a show where Axelrod is clearly in the wrong, it's not so easy to render these conflicts in black and white. If the legacy of 9/11 was an extremely polarized political environment, the lasting effect of the financial meltdown appears to be much of the world embracing the kind of mercenary self-interest that brought down Wall Street in the first place. Just like in post-apocalyptic fiction, it's every man, woman, and child for himself.

That sort of moral murkiness is all over The Big Short, in which the main characters end up ambivalently rooting for a market collapse that will get them real paid, and it finds its way into Billions too. In the pilot, Rhoades' wife Wendy (Mad Men's Maggie Siff) accuses him of advancing the public good only when it's good for him, and we learn that, in an increasingly juicy conflict of interest for Chuck, Wendy has been employed as Axelrod's in-house psychiatrist for 15 years. This kind of shading ups the intrigue in many ways, but it also makes for a much less cathartic viewing experience than those 9/11 and War On Terror movies. When both the crooks and the people chasing the crooks are out for themselves, there's so much less incentive for fist-pumping. It's why The Big Short ended not with a triumphant roar but a sigh.

Billions may veer in a more cynical direction someday too, but for now the show seems to be hoping disenchanted Americans will root against a robber baron. There's a scene in the second episode that implies as much: looking back on one of his favorite childhood movies, Rhoades rhapsodizes about the law enforcement "super posse" that forms to chase down Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. When his right-hand man replies, "I didn't root for the super posse. I rooted for Butch and Sundance," Rhoades widens his eyes and smiles. "Of course you did," Rhoades says. "We all did. But that's not who we are anymore."