Since the December 2008 arrest of Bernie Madoff, Eleanor Squillari’s boss for 25 years, she has been waging a very public struggle to come to terms with a disturbing anomaly in her life: how could she have been the personal secretary to the worst financial criminal in history, managing his travel schedule, keeping track of his business records, and acting as his gatekeeper, and yet have suspected nothing right up until the moment that an army of FBI agents stormed the plush midtown Manhattan offices of Bernard L. Madoff Investment Securities LLC?
A 9,000-word as-told-to piece in Vanity Fair (which compared Squillari’s ignorance of the evil under her nose to that of Traudl Junge, Adolf Hitler’s secretary) and confessional interviews on the Today show and Good Morning America were apparently not enough to soothe her guilty conscience. Now, in Squillari’s latest conspicuous attempt to make sense of it all—and once again proclaim to the world that she didn’t know! about Madoff’s $65 billion Ponzi scheme—she stars in a feature-length documentary about Madoff’s disastrous treachery, In God We Trust, which premiered this month at the Tribeca Film Festival.
The film’s co-directors, Derek Anderson and Victor Kubicek of post-Schwarzenegger Terminator franchise fame, were introduced to Squillari by her Vanity Fair co-author, Mark Seal, shortly after the piece appeared in the summer of 2009. They were immediately taken with her salt-of-the-earth persona and obvious sincerity, and had their cameras follow her for three years as she commuted from her modest house to Manhattan on the Staten Island ferry and pursued her own investigation, Miss Marple–like, into her former benefactor’s perfidy.
The opening shot and many more like it show the financial district from the water, accented by squawking seagulls, a pensive musical score, and occasional glimpses of Squillari’s equally pensive, shadowed face framed by the Statue of Liberty.
Drawing on Hollywood-blockbuster storytelling techniques, Anderson and Kubicek are clearly not shy about helping viewers figure out how to feel. The documentary’s noisily ominous overture—accompanied by slick computer graphics of the Lipstick Building, where Bernie did his dastardly deeds, collapsing to the ground—wouldn’t be out of place in a sci-fi dystopia flick.
“My name is Eleanor and for the last 25 years I was Bernie Madoff’s secretary,” Squillari narrates by way of introduction as she’s shown riding the ferry. “I am 59 years old and I was three and a half years away from retirement when he was arrested. I discovered that there was more to the man and the crime than I could ever have imagined—playing out just 15 feet from my desk.”
A little later she confides, “I know I didn’t do anything wrong. It’s just part of my personality to blame myself for things.” Then she’s shown outdoors in a park, bending a sympathetic ear to one of Madoff’s victimized investors. “Oh my gosh, I’m so sorry,” she tells the ruined woman, a widow with five children. In due course she got angry. “I was gonna do everything I could to help the authorities,” Squillari narrates. “I became obsessed. It was the first thing I thought about when I got up in the morning and it was the last thing I thought about when I went to bed at night.” Later we hear from FBI special agent Brad Garrett, a third-party validator who says of Squillari, “Eleanor is the ultimate pot of gold. She’s honest. She knows all the players.”
Surely, no reasonable person would deny that Squillari seems like a nice woman who is genuinely remorseful about the mayhem her boss wrought, or that she did what little she could in the aftermath to set things right. In the film, she is seen interviewing a colleague and a pair of journalists about the scam—a touch of showbiz that seems a bit staged—and poring over spreadsheets and datebooks to assist the law enforcement authorities (also applying face cream and sipping a glass of red wine). The feds ended up charging Bernie’s brother, Peter, and three Madoff lieutenants, Annette Bongiorno, Joann Crupi, and Frank DiPascali, who, from the Lipstick Building’s secretive 17th floor that was accessible to Squillari but few others, allegedly enriched themselves with investors’ money while sending out fraudulent statements showing miraculous monthly gains.
Beyond that, we learn that Squillari was abandoned by her mother as a small girl, abused by her police detective-father, who once blackened her eye, and treated coldly by her stepmother. It’s not hard to fathom how she became a member of the extended Madoff family and grew close to his sons Andrew and Mark, who were not implicated in Bernie’s crimes, though Mark became so distraught over the scandal that he committed suicide by hanging on the second anniversary of his father’s arrest. In one scene, Squillari is shown arranging a bouquet and condolence card for Mark’s funeral. She apparently saw her boss, despite his egomania and narcissism, as the supportive father figure that she lacked in real life. In addition, her job gave her access to a glamorous social scene that was previously unattainable.
The documentary, which is otherwise thin on biography, indicates that Squillari has two grown children from an unmentioned marriage, and that they offered her a place to sleep when unexplained financial difficulties caused her to lose her house. (The Vanity Fair piece, but not the documentary, reveals that Squillari earned slightly less than $100,000 a year as a secretary and received a $150,000 inheritance from her father, but pulled her money out of Madoff’s tainted funds more than a decade before the big crack-up.)
The movie is a thorough exposition of the Madoff scandal, no doubt enlightening to the uninitiated, but it adds little or nothing new to the known facts of the case. And it wouldn’t have killed the filmmakers to give proper credit to New York magazine writer Steve Fishman, who conducted extensive phone interviews with Madoff from federal prison in Butner, North Carolina, where he is serving a 150-year sentence; the documentary uses several seconds of audio from Fishman’s groundbreaking work but doesn’t identify the source.
More unsatisfying, In God We Trust never really comes to grips with perhaps the most fascinating aspect of Madoff’s crimes and Squillari’s specific experience with them, namely, what is it in human nature that allowed this top-down mass delusion to fool so many people for so many years?