Sunday, January 4, 2009

Scumbag Millionaires

The irritating yet essential documentary Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room (2005) feels even more topical now than on its original release three years ago. Want to trace the origins of our country's financial free-fall? No better example than what occurred in the late 1990s and early 2000s behind the walls of a Houston-based gas and electricity titan, a beacon of integrity whose executives were surreptitiously cooking the books, jerking around California's power supply, and absconding with millions. Bethany McLean, the Fortune magazine writer who unwittingly stumbled on the scandal and co-authored (with Peter Elkind) the book on which this movie is based, says in an early interview that people assume that Enron "is a story about numbers, when actually it's a story about people." The Smartest Guys in the Room casts more than a few jaundiced glances at "Kenny Boy" Lay, company chairman and buddy of the Bushes, but unexpectedly it's CEO Jeffrey Skilling who provides the hollow soul at the movie's center.

Skilling is described (in rather dime-store psychology terms) as a person with dueling personas. While the public figure was a bespectacled, soft-spoken, cool-headed leader, the private man was a pathological liar and inveterate risk-taker whose corrupt policies became more outrageous the wider the cracks grew in the company's visage. Yet the film convincingly pinpoints Enron's destiny as sealed back in 1996 with a condition to Skilling's initial employment (rubber-stamped by Arthur Andersen) called "mark-to-market" accounting, whereby estimates of earnings were transformed into actualities. True believers in a deregulated marketplace, Lay, Skilling and their cronies -- namely chief financial officer Andrew Fastow, whose intricate Ponzi schemes concealed Enron's financial losses -- are rendered all the more frightening for the fierce convictions behind their fraud.

A few elements of The Smartest Guys in the Room already feel dated, namely the post-reelection swipes at our retiring president. Like many current filmmakers -- documentarians and dramatists alike -- Alex Gibney appears not to grasp why liberals are loathed in middle America, and he undercuts the message by overplaying the kind of potshots guaranteed to alienate an audience. The astonishing third act of the movie features audiotape of company brokers brazenly ordering the shutdown of power plants in California that led to the state's infamous "rolling blackouts" in 2001. (One gleefully shouts, "Burn, baby, burn!" -- in response to news of approaching wildfires -- by way of anticipating the buying back of stock for cheaper than it was sold.) But Gibney then trots out deposed Governor Gray Davis, whose speculation -- that the blackouts were part of a master plan between Enron and the White House that precipitated his recall and Schwarzenegger's ascent -- is insinuated as fact. I was more convinced by another interviewee, who had urged the governor to summon the National Guard and retake the plants by force, that Davis's passivity was part of the problem.

Another maddening attribute among modern documentary filmmakers is the inability to trust their own facts. When somebody mentions Skilling's insecure machismo, Gibney cuts to "X-Treme Sports" stock footage of bikers doing flips near a canyon. When it is revealed that Lu Pi, a mysterious Enron exec who made off with $350 mil and became the second largest landowner in Colorado, had a fetish for strippers, in come a few garish visuals on that subject. (It doesn't help that Pi is depicted as a stereotypical enigmatic Asian villain, a corporate Mr. Moto.) I suppose these segues are designed to entertain, but instead they take you out of the story, which is compelling enough on its own terms, though perhaps not Hollywood's.

Gibney's film closes with the indictments of Skilling, Lay and Fastow, and makes a cogent case for a wider net of criminality by Arthur Andersen and fellow enablers in a system that bankrupted a corporate entity, tarnished other businesses and left tens of thousands of workers across the spectrum unemployed. More attention should have been given to the victims of Enron's schemes. (At times it's a little unclear who suffered, as at least one talking head -- a former mid-level executive -- is shown still living in apparent comfort.) The Smartest Guys in the Room does its damndest to be "about people," yet what sticks with me is a more concrete understanding of what is meant by a postmodern economy. "Artists, sportsmen, surgeons, plumbers, and the rest of us have secret voices of doubt," writes John Lanchester, "but if you go to work with money, and make money, you can be proved right in the most inhumanly pure way. This is why people who have succeeded in the world of money tend to have such a high opinion of themselves." The bigger they are, of course, the harder they fall -- small consolation, as current events demonstrate, when the greedy bastards land on the rest of us.


Anonymous said...

Why do some viewers of documentaries seem to believe that documentarians include material (the person who laments the passivity of Gray Davis) by accident? It's there because it's part of the story and intentionally contradicts the seamless narrative of Gray Davis = man with white hat.

As for Enron and the Bush Administration - we'll see how well the film holds up when/if the transcripts Cheney Energy meetings are released.

Craig said...

Good points both.

Craig said...

Rereading the paragraph, I probably should have clarified better that it's the tone of the passages in question that feel dated (to me), not their actual content. Certainly the talking-head with the woman (whose name and position I forget) who criticizes Davis is a non-accidental attempt at balance, but it seems to get lost in the more juicy conspiracy charges. I've seen this in Gibney's work before; another example from this film is the depiction of Lu Pi. I suspect a filmmaker with Gibney's resources could bother to find more substantial information about the man (an ex-wife who was left for a pregnant stripper would be one potential source), but that would be less entertaining than the caricature he leaves us with.

It's overall a good movie, and an important one. I'm sure we'll be finding out more about Enron's connections and dealings over the next few years that may confirm some of the speculation raised here.

Anonymous II said...

"As for the Enron and the Bush Administration - we'll see how well the film holds up when/if the transcripts (of the) Cheney Energy meetings are released."

An elected official might avoid criticism if he voluntarily releases all information pertaining to the accusations. When the accused withholds information he has only himself to blame when a film portrays him in a negative light.