For those who considered “Fahrenheit 9/11” last year’s most successful horror movie, here comes “Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room,” another terrifying examination of the hubris with which the Bushies and their Big Oil cronies are raping America.
Adapted from the book of the same name, “Enron” meticulously tracks the rise and fall of Enron boss Kenneth Lay and his second-in-command, Jeffrey Skilling, while also delving into the grotesque activities of their various lieutenants. It’s not saying anything new to remark that this is the story of a monstrous violation of the public trust, but knowing the basic framework of this cautionary tale doesn’t diminish the documentary’s drama and revelatory power.
Writer/director Alex Gibney presents the string of events that led to Enron’s collapse with surgical precision, and in so doing creates a disturbing conspiracy thriller. He kicks off with the suicide of Enron executive Cliff Baxter, then backtracks to explore how Baxter was just the most obvious tragedy in a catastrophe of epic proportions. For those keeping track, the key stats are that Enron’s collapse put 20,000 workers out on their a***s, and caused more than $3 billion in pension and retirement benefits to disappear.
Why did it happen? The obvious answer is that Lay, Skilling and their cohorts got greedy, but that’s only part of the story. As the subtitle indicates, the top guys at Enron weren’t dummies, so it’s not as if they pulled a fast one and hoped no one would notice. They exploited loopholes in existing business law — and created new business models — with the intent of defrauding the public in plain sight.
Gibney allows Enron apologists to posit that Lay and Skilling were in their ways emblematic American businessmen because of their ruthless pursuit of the bottom line, which amplifies the idea that these men might have made valuable contributions to society had they possessed, you know, consciences. This enables the picture to go beyond a recap of a recent news story and blossom into a thoughtful critique of the capitalist ideal; after all, it’s a short leap from telling employees to make money to telling them to make money by any means necessary.
The picture details how Enron’s first step into the moral abyss was employing something called “mark-to-market accounting,” wherein companies declare projected profits the day a deal is signed. So when Enron decided to build a massive power plant in India, for instance, the company documented the income it expected to collect once the plant was completed as profit. Little problem — India has such widespread poverty that consumers could never possibly afford the energy Enron was selling. The factory was never completed, but executives involved in its erection pocketed gigantic bonuses because the fake profits pushed Enron’s stock price into the stratosphere.
The company’s arrogance reached insane levels when Enron jumped into the deregulated energy market in California. As is revealed in chilling audiotapes featuring conversations between power-plant operators and Enron traders, the company actually caused blackouts in order to drive up its energy price, then turned the juice back on once the price-gouging was in place. The picture even proposes that the Enron-fueled energy “crisis” was the reason for Gov. Gray Davis’ recall, which means Enron’s at least partly to blame for the ascendance of the Governator. It’s a wonder Californians haven’t lynched Lay by this point.
Gibney also illuminates the insidious relationship between the Bush family and the Enron empire. This picture documents G.W. Bush’s corruption almost as sharply as “Fahrenheit 9/11,” especially in one choice bit: At the height of California’s energy crisis, Bush says he won’t intervene, adding that “the best way we can help California is to be good citizens.” Huh?
While it’s easy to embrace Gibney’s picture as a blue-state screed, “Enron” actually aims higher than that. By providing incisive portraits of the key players, it also scores as an examination of how the greed inherent to the capitalist model enables troubled personalities to run amok when the proper checks and balances aren’t in place. Skilling is portrayed as a former overweight nerd whose pride rested in his confidence at being smarter than peers, so when he grew up, got in shape, and accumulated power, he became a monster with an ax to grind. Worse, he cashed in $200 million in stocks and quit just before the s**t hit the fan; as one betrayed coworker notes, his unexpected departure was akin to Jim Jones serving everyone the Kool-Aid and then not drinking any himself.
Powerful on many levels at once, “Enron” couldn’t be more necessary as we wade into the muck of a second Bush term — an era in which corporations will undoubtedly be given even more leeway with which to rob the American public. It’s only by understanding what went wrong that we can hope to recognize the warning signs next time.