The documentary Unraveled takes the current tone of anger at Wall Street swindlers down a notch by getting us closer to the person behind one of the scams. But the shift it achieves isn’t from hate to understanding, which is what, at the very least, you’d expect from an up-close doc about a notorious criminal. Rather, it’s simply from hate to slightly less hate.
The film focuses solely on Marc Dreier, the formerly wealthy head of his own New York law firm, as he languishes in a luxury penthouse far — in multiple ways — above Manhattan. Dreier, the film deftly informs us, used his firm’s biggest clients as unwitting collateral in the collection of hundreds of millions of dollars in loans from hedge funds, which he then used to keep up the appearance that he was wildly successful. Of course, we wouldn’t be seeing Dreier under house arrest and facing jail time if the clients themselves ever saw any of that money: he was running a flat-out Ponzi scheme. The film’s arc moves from Dreier sitting on a couch recounting his crimes to Dreier at his kitchen table recounting some more, all the while waiting for a judge to hand down a number that will correspond to the years he’ll spend in jail. But while he offers superficial apologies for his frauds, the film can’t help but catch the insincerity in Dreier’s voice: like a stereotype of a lawyer, he’s focused on transferring the blame to who or whatever will take it.
This isn’t surprising: by now, we should be used to the idea that Wall Street assholes are proud that they were smart enough to buck the system, however briefly. Nor should it be surprising that Dreier is a sort of professional displacer, adept at denouncing what he sees as the hypocrisy of the people who want to see him — and those like him — go down. Over and over again, as the out-of-shape Dreier whiles away his last comfortable weeks under armed guard, he goes to lengths to justify what he did as not all that bad, something that almost anyone would have done given the chance. He lets out the flimsiest of apologetic platitudes for his victims — not only the hedge funds he ripped off, but also the more than 800 people he employed who are now jobless. Even decked out in sweatsuits with no one but his grown son to bring him groceries, Dreier can’t drop his cocky CEO swagger or stop himself from hinting that his swindle was minor in the grand scheme of things, a sub-Madoff — and therefore forgiveable — act that was unmasked during a period of self-righteous Wall Street witchhunts.
None of which holds water, of course. Dreier was a power-and-wealth-obsessed coward who refused to admit his law firm was failing and continues, in Unraveled, to refuse to admit he did anything truly wrong. The film is mighty low key, which is in a way refreshing: there’s no sanctimonious finger-wagging, and aside from the clear-cut animations that efficiently convey how Dreier did it, there’s no bombast either. But a film like this brings up the interesting question of whether the unobtrusive, fly-on-the-wall documentary tactic is really what’s needed when the verdict has literally already been handed down on the subject.