Madoff’s Multibillion-Dollar Mirage Arrives on TV

Now, eight years later, come the screen adaptations, the first of which, a four-hour ABC mini-series called, simply, “Madoff,” will air on Wednesday and Thursday, Feb. 3 and 4. (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 Mr. Madoff and Blythe Danner as his wife, Ruth.

I say “supposedly,” because the mini-series tells its story far more lucidly than Mr. Ross’s 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.

Take its opening scene, in which Mr. Madoff is having lunch with a prospective investor. “It’s a closed fund,” he tells the investor, meaning that he isn’t accepting new investments. Then we hear Mr. Dreyfuss’s voice-over, explaining what his character has learned over the years about luring in investors.

“You present it as an exclusive thing, an elite club for the chosen few,” he says. “Nothing on earth makes people want something more than telling them they can’t have it.” Back to the lunch, where Mr. Madoff tells the investor, “I’m going to make an exception.” The man smiles broadly at the news he will be joining the club — and happily hands his money over to a crook.

By the time the mini-series 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 Mr. Madoff’s firm — and fail to make the one critical phone call that would have exposed the scheme. We’ve watched Mr. Madoff and his key lieutenant, Frank DiPascali Jr., rig each month’s statements so that they arrive at a predetermined gain.

And though “Madoff” can’t explain what’s going through Mr. 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. Though Mr. Madoff was a philanderer, the mini-series correctly portrays him as someone who preferred being with family. His sons, his brother, his niece — and Ruth — all worked at the firm, though in the legitimate part of the business. (The Ponzi scheme was conducted several floors below Mr. 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 Mr. Ross hints in his book that she may have known about the scheme — he notes that she made several multimillion-dollar withdrawals before Mr. Madoff’s confession — the mini-series portrays her as the ur-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. Ms. Berman added that Ms. Danner spent a day with Ruth Madoff as she prepared for the role; visits like that invariably arouse sympathy.

However much Mr. 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 T.S.A. 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. Mr. 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 Mr. Madoff. But the scene feels dutiful, lacking the kind of empathy that the mini-series heaps on Ruth Madoff.

The truth is, in virtually all the journalism about Mr. 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 Mr. Madoff. The fascination with Mr. Madoff, and with Ruth and Andy and Mark and his brother, Peter (who is serving a 10-year prison sentence), has caused us — myself included — 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.