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In God We Trust: Tribeca Review

The Bottom Line

The subject's perspective adds fresh insight to years-old scandal in this Bernie Madoff doc.

Venue:

Tribeca Film Festival, Spotlight

Directors-Screenwriters:

Victor Kubicek, Derek Anderson

Bernie Madoff's personal secretary recounts her part in the investigation into his crimes in this documentary.

NEW YORK — Some will surely never believe that anyone who worked with Bernie Madoff on a daily basis could be wholly innocent, not to mention unaware, of the vast fraud he organized. That claim gets more convincing with In God We Trust, which lets Madoff's personal secretary of 25 years, Eleanor Squillari, describe her years-long efforts to help the FBI get to the bottom of crimes she says were a complete surprise when her boss was arrested in 2008. Victor Kubicek and Derek Anderson's debut doc is accessible and involving enough to engage viewers, though the scandal's age and some odd shortcomings in production quality will likely present obstacles commercially.

Squillari, a Staten Islander whose thick accent turns her name into "Eleanoaahh," narrates throughout. She recalls how the shock of learning of Madoff's crimes quickly turned to a sense of responsibility. "I got obsessed" with the investigation, she says, going through troves of documents to try to understand what happened "just fifteen feet from my desk."

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Viewers may guess Squillari's role in connecting the dots -- using old address books, correspondence she was supposed to have trashed, and so on -- was less a matter of her own initiative than one encouraged by the government. But if so, the FBI appears to be pleased with the part she played: Retired agent Brad Garrett calls her a "pot of gold," a rare combination of honesty and access to the players in Madoff's world.

Painting the picture for us that she did for them, Squillari draws up seating charts of a company that was purposely segregated, with legit activities kept away from the offices on the 17th floor -- a place, one reporter says, "where money went to disappear." Squillari describes the denizens of that floor as a strange crew -- people without business backgrounds, who dressed unprofessionally and were needlessly rude to clients. But then, Madoff himself could be brusque, offering to return his investors' funds in full whenever one was puzzled about how he produced such magical rates of return.

It's frequently unclear how much of what we see is Squillari's investigation in real time -- she eventually turned her second bedroom into a "war room" -- and how much is reenacted for the cameras, but we travel with her to meet with both former colleagues and journalists who covered the firm skeptically years before its collapse. Together they sketch out Madoff's origins and the corporate culture he fostered, for viewers who've forgotten, and provide details of some of the scam's mechanics -- like the use of a "dinosaur" computer, which only a few people could operate, to maintain fraudulent spreadsheets.

When it's time to recount the days before and after the arrest, the filmmakers briefly draw in a subject with access to the fraudster similar to Squillari's own: His personal driver, who thought "this man could do no wrong," remembers how changed Madoff's sons were after they exited their father's apartment on the day he told them everything.

Kubicek and Anderson are happy enough to have Squillari's story that they don't look for interviewees who present other angles; without such voices, the film invites skepticism that may be entirely unwarranted. The film's photography is uneven; bizarrely, the most distractingly ugly footage is used placed at the beginning and is the kind of thing -- B-roll of everyday activity at the Staten Island ferry, for instance -- that could easily have been reshot during post-production when producers realized they cared about the way the film looked.

Production Companies: The Halcyon Company, Verisimilitude

Directors-Screenwriters: Victor Kubicek, Derek Anderson

Producers: Derek Anderson, Victor Kubicek, Hunter Gray, Orlando Wood

Executive producers: Tyler Brodie, David Aim, Beverly Camhe, Paul Wilmot, Mark Seal, Arden Wohl, Marc Altshuler, Laura Eastwood, Beatrix Ost, Ludwig Kuttner, Sir Frank Lowe, Natalie Graeme, Seth Weinstein, Chalid Arrab, Toneya Bird

Director of photography: Tom Houghton, Rad Roubeni

Music: Human Music

Editor: Melody London

Sales: Rena Ronson, United Talent Agency

No rating, 82 minutes