Perhaps the only thing bigger than the capacity for human greed is the capacity for human stupidity. Victor Kubicek and Derek Anderson’s feature debut, In God We Trust, a somewhat enlightening documentary about the financial misdeeds of financier Bernie Madoff, spends just as much time chronicling the negligence and inattention that allowed Madoff to rob his clients of billions as it does trying to unravel just why he actually did it.
The film centers on the journey of Madoff’s personal secretary of 25 years, Eleanor Squillari, who has made it her mission to complete her own investigation into just what her boss did, how he did it, and who else was involved. While the majority of In God We Trust focuses on the heartbreak and fallout from Madoff’s crimes – and there’s plenty of heartbreak and fallout to mine here – its final third crumbles into aimless finger-pointing and raising questions it is in no way equipped to answer, trading emotion for hackneyed investigation.
What is most boggling about Squillari is that she maintains that she had no idea what her boss was doing, even though she freely speaks about the bizarre division in the Madoff offices (the legal side of Madoff’s business was run on the 19th floor of the chic Lipstick Building by refined financiers who held MBAs, while everything illegal allegedly happened on the locked-down 17th floor by far less educated employees), Bernie’s ever-ballooning wealth, and her boss’s very particular personality. It is a hard pill to swallow, believing that Madoff’s gatekeeper for nearly three decades didn’t even have an inkling that something was amiss, and Kubicek and Anderson never even remotely push Squillari on the veracity of her claims.
Of course, why would they? Their entire film centers on her personal crusade to get to the bottom of the Madoff scheme. Her quest is surely meant to come off as a noble one, and while it does eventually appear to be a tough and altruistic endeavor (Squillari is, even now, still at it), it’s hard to believe that a person in her unique position didn’t suspect a thing. It’s still weirder that Squillari’s eventual assisting of the FBI with their investigation is meant to come off as a self-motivated decision, not what it most likely was – something ordered by the federal government.
Squillari’s personal feelings toward both her boss and her job are stirring. Early in the film, for example, she shares a story about her own history, making it clear why her workplace stood in for an actual family life. And In God We Trust is at its best when it trades on such emotion. Obviously, Squillari isn’t the only one who suffered at Madoff’s hands, and the film also includes interviews with some of his victims along with jaw-dropping facts about his treatment of his own family that make the subject matter of the film feel approachable and personal.
Unfortunately, the final third of the film moves away from the emotion associated with Madoff’s crimes and instead attempts to unravel details about his actual con and the motives behind it (besides, you know, basic greed). Kubicek and Anderson provide details about some of Madoff’s possible accomplices and associates, but despite digging up occasionally interesting dirt, there is nothing satisfying about the investigation, and it leaves still more loose ends and questions.
The film doesn’t appear to relish the questions that remain. This isn’t the sort of doc that leaves its audience with the satisfaction of not having all the answers but appreciating what’s gone into asking them, it’s the kind that trails off and ends without much of even a semblance of clarity. Perhaps Squillari’s cliché-ridden final voiceover is meant to instill in us some sense of conclusion or hope, but it falls flat and proves startlingly ineffective.
The Upside: Compelling subject matter made better by interesting and insightful interviews and a few jaw-dropping new bits of information, slick graphics, solid soundtrack by Human Music.
The Downside: Wavers between addressing emotion and information without satisfyingly speaking to either, final act is a mish-mash of hard facts and completely unanswered questions, abrupt and unsatisfying conclusion.
On the Side: Squillari’s story first came to light in a 2009 Vanity Fair article, which you can read HERE.