‘Unraveled’: Tied up in himself

April 16, 2012

To the canon of films about the financial collapse of 2008, add Marc Simon’s “Unraveled,” a portrait of one man’s hubris, insecurity and appetite for glory, writ large.

That man is Marc Dreier, arrested at the end of 2008 for a massive financial fraud but overshadowed in the headlines of the time by the nearly simultaneous Bernard Madoff case.

An attorney whose business was never as big as he wanted it to be, Dreier overreached financially to establish himself as a major player on the New York scene – then covered his debts by acquiring huge lines of credit in the name of unwitting clients. He pocketed the money, using it to pay his operating costs – and, eventually, to pay the interest on the loans themselves. The more he owed, the more he borrowed – until the tightening of the credit markets caused his scheme to collapse.

Simon was actually an attorney with Dreier’s firm, who was left unemployed and out thousands of dollars he was owed when Dreier’s firm went belly up after his arrest. Simon and his camera crew were given access to Dreier, who was under house arrest, for the final 60 days between his guilty plea and his sentencing in late 2009 – in exchange for paying for the security required by the court for Dreier to remain in his home.

Simon is able to get Dreier to tell the camera his story: about his rise from hot-shot student leader in his Long Island high school to Yale and Harvard Law and then into legal practice. But Dreier’s image of himself as a go-getter and a winner didn’t square with the career he actually seemed to be having. So, in the late 1990s, he launched his own law practice, grandiosely renting an entire floor of a Park Avenue office building – 11,000 square feet – though he only had one other lawyer to work for him and no money to pay for it.

But his income still didn’t match his expectations – and so, to make ends meet, he committed a small fraud, applying for a million dollars of credit in the name of a client. When that worked, he upped the ante, getting $20 million and more, eventually bilking a series of hedge funds in a variety of his clients’ names.

But, as he insists to his lawyer, who is trying to keep him from getting the maximum sentence sought by the government (145 years), he wasn’t the devil – just a desperate guy who, to shore of up his business (and boost his own self-esteem), stole hundreds of millions. Never mind that he spent his share on lavish homes, yachts, cars and art.

The question Dreier raises, in fact, is an interesting one: Are most people honest because it’s the moral thing to do? Or is it the combination of the lack of opportunity and the fear of getting caught?

Simon’s camera shows Dreier virtually bouncing off the walls of his East Side penthouse, in which he is a prisoner except for court appearances. He reads the paper, he plays with his dog, he visits with his son (his under-age daughter also was part of his life but was purposely left out of the film), he talks to his lawyer and works on his statement of contrition for his sentencing hearing.

And he talks to Simon’s camera. Simon, in turn, recreates moments from Dreier’s life with graphic-novel-style animation and illustrations. He also punctuates the film with home-video scenes of a Dreier office party and of the lavish charity golf tournament Dreier sponsored that drew famous pro-football names like Michael Strahan and Marcus Allen to sing Dreier’s praises.

Is Dreier remorseful about his actions or simply about getting caught? It’s hard to tell. He obviously is jumpy about his future, working with lawyers to try to bargain his way into a minimum-security prison close enough to New York for his children to visit. He frets over being housed with a roommate who snores and worries that he’ll be forced to subsist on hot dogs and to scrub floors.

He also makes an intriguing point: that, as with the arrest of Bernard Madoff (among the other catastrophes that unregulated markets caused in 2008), he wasn’t caught because of skilled police work. Rather, as with everything else, the government turned a blind eye – until the tightening of the credit markets suddenly revealed the massive financial exposure of everything from credit-default swaps to the actual fraud of Madoff and, to a lesser extent, Dreier.

“Unraveled” is solid documentary work, explaining a complicated situation in a comprehensible way. More important, it provides a close-up look of a desperate, self-absorbed man trying to maintain his dignity at a moment when everything else in his life is being forcibly stripped away because of his own actions.

A cautionary tale? You bet – but also an intriguingly intimate portrait of someone who was convinced he wasn’t destined to be one of the little people – and paid the price for trying to prove otherwise.

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