Not to get all David Denby on you, but one reason I'm selling my opinions to the highest bidders (below) is that I lost a wee bit of money in a little enterprise called Enron, which is the subject of Alex Gibney's rousing new documentary Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room (Magnolia Pictures). So I admit I came into the film with a small bias in that I wanted to see the heads of Kenny Boy Lay, Jeffrey Skilling, and Andrew Fastow (among others) on pikes. The picture almost satisfied my blood lust: The fraud and conspiracy trial of Lay and Skilling are to come.
Gibney bases his documentary on the book The Smartest Guys in the Room by Fortune reporters Peter Elkin and Bethany McLean, whose February 2001, article, "Is Enron Overpriced?" sent a shiver through the company (and prompted Enron executives to fly from Houston to New York to try to argue her out of her—in retrospect, she admits, mild—skepticism). A surprisingly young woman comfortably curled on a sofa, McLean dubs the Enron saga a human tragedy, and I hope she's talking about the stockholders. I'm not sure that the scoundrels who ran Enron have the stature of tragic protagonists. (Kurt Eichenwald's book carries the less ironic title Conspiracy of Fools.)
The documentary cannot be called muckraking, as the muck has already been well-raked, but Gibney's recounting has a touch of playful sadism that I quite enjoyed. The phrase "rabbits out of hats" is illustrated with a frisky rabbit. The phrase "the magic of the market" triggers "That Old Black Magic." (The early re-enactment of executive Cliff Baxter's suicide is perhaps overkill.) Among the banner lines are one in which a commentator likens the pre-collapse sale of Enron shares (for many, many millions) by Lay, Skilling, etc., to captains lowering themselves into a lifeboat and calling up to the passengers on the ship that everything is just fine. Another amusing line involves Jim Jones ordering his followers to drink the Kool-Aid, which he then doesn't drink himself.
It is a mordant, suspenseful, revelatory story that Gibney has to illustrate. Lay and Skilling were apostles of deregulation, arguing before Congress for the need to liberate businessmen from the shackles of government before helping to legalize "mark-to-market" accounting, which allowed them to divert Enron losses to bogus off-shore companies and keep the stock price in the stratosphere. The hostility toward government did not extend to the millions, if not billions, in government subsidies, nor was it directed against the Bushes, père and fils, who counted Kenny Boy among their warmest supporters and paid him back with access and influence. (I did not have financial relations with that man, Mr. Lay, cracks one observer.)
During the post-collapse hearings before Congress, you look at the faces of Skilling and Lay and see nothing more than morally untroubled charlatans obfuscating desperately to save their asses. It's no surprise that for all his talk of compassion toward ex-Enron employees, Skilling does not cite his favorite book, The Selfish Gene, nor affirm his yearly practice of axing 15 percent of the workforce to strongarm employees into competing more ruthlessly.
The most chilling section of Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room covers the energy crisis and rolling blackouts in California, engineered in part by Enron traders exporting power from the state to raise prices artificially. Audio tapes reveal the traders commanding power-plant managers to "get creative" in finding reasons for shutdowns. They exult in their power: to derail the economy of one of our biggest states! They watch wildfires on TV caused by heat and dry conditions and say, "Burn, baby, burn!"
Incidentally, I remember being on CNN opposite the right-wing critic/hit-man Michael Medved in late January 2001 and was speechless to hear him blame the rolling California blackouts on ...
No, wait. I'm not going to tell you right away. Try to guess. This is good.
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