April 18, 2005

Enron hits the silver screen

By: Kelly Jane Torrance

How was it possible for a small group of businessmen to deceive intelligent reporters, colleagues, and Wall Street analysts? If one believes Alex Gibney, writer and director of the new documentary, Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room , it was all personality.

Enron, based on the book by Fortune reporters Peter Elkin and Bethany McLean, was nominated for a Grand Jury Prize at Sundance and has been screened to indignant audiences across the country in advance of its official opening this week. The story it tells is familiar, given the gallons of ink spent on what has become America’s most infamous corporate scandal. Enron was a Texas gas company formed twenty years ago with 37,500 miles of pipeline. Its first scandal came early, in 1987, when the company discovered that oil traders in Valhalla, New York, had been siphoning off company funds to their personal bank accounts.

But Enron weathered that storm, soon discovering it could make more money trading energy as a commodity than delivering it. “If you wanted to be in the business, you had to deal with Enron,” general manager Amanda Colpean remembers. Enron later moved into the broadband business as well.

“It had taken Enron 16 years to go from about $10 billion in assets to $65 billion in assets and took them 24 days to go bankrupt,” narrator Peter Coyote solemnly declares at the film’s beginning. The movie starts with wide, beautiful shots of the Enron buildings in Houston. Named most innovative company in America by Fortune for many years (perhaps the book was the magazine’s penance), experts considered it “manned by America’s best and brightest.” The two at the top were chairman Kenneth Lay and chief executive officer Jeffrey Skilling: “They were known as the smartest guys in the room, captains of a ship too powerful to ever go down.”

Ken Lay saw himself as a visionary, and was drawn to those like him. “Jeff Skilling was the guy with the biggest ideas of all,” McLean says in the film. One of the movie’s biggest deficiencies is its lack of penetration into the character of Lay. Perhaps it’s because he’s just not as interesting as Skilling. A nerdy-looking guy when he joined the company in the early 1990s, Skilling completely changed his appearance, working out and even getting eye surgery to lose his glasses. His employees almost worshiped him. “When Jeff got Lasik on his eyes, everyone at Enron got Lasik, so nobody was wearing glasses,” journalist Mimi Swartz laughs.

“It’s really hard to know when Enron first crossed the line into outright fraud. But there isn’t any doubt who the guy was who led them there,” McLean notes. “It was a protÃ?Â??Ã?Â?Ã?©gÃ?Â??Ã?Â?Ã?© of Jeff Skilling’s by the name of Andy Fastow.” But we don’t get enough insight into Fastow’s character, either. And one wonders if the director concentrates too much on executive Lou Pai, who left the company before the others, just so he could insert footage of strippers, a hobby of Pai’s.

Creative insertions like that are a hallmark of Gibney, who also wrote and produced the excellent documentary The Trials of Henry Kissinger. The two films share a similar style, including musical elements. Popular songs are placed into the narrative as a joke. It sounds precious, but it often works. (Remember clips of Kissinger dating beautiful, famous women over the refrains of “Mr. Big Stuff”?) The beginning of The Cardigans’ sweet “Lovefool” ushers in the problems at Enron: “Dear, I feel we’re facing a problem…” But Tom Waits’ “What’s He Building,” with its urgent questions, is just too distracting to begin the documentary.

Also original is Gibney’s insights from the Reverend James Nutter of Houston’s Palmer Memorial Episcopal Church. The pastor has given guidance to many Enron employees, and his perspective is a thoughtful one not usually found in accounts of the company’s downfall. Unfortunately, we don’t hear from many actual low-level employees.

We are supposed to get angry at what the executives did to them, though. The documentary notes that Ken Lay encouraged employees to keep buying stock even while executives were unloading it. Billions were lost in retirement and pension funds. But while the movie is long–a bit too long at almost two hours–there isn’t always subtlety in Gibney’s ideas. The movie implies that almost all employee retirement funds were in Enron stock. But at the beginning of 2001, the year of the company’s bankruptcy, Enron stock accounted for 62 percent of the value of the employee 401(k) accounts. Other company’s funds have an even higher percentage of stock held–Procter & Gamble’s is at 95 percent, for example.

More importantly, many employees were quoted in newspapers after the scandal broke, acknowledging that their friends or children advised them to diversify their stock portfolios. But they didn’t listen, even though the stock dropped not in one fell swoop but over many months.

This is not to say that Enron executives did not do a great injustice. Lay and Skilling are both expected to face trial this year. With the thorough, detailed “trial” they have already faced in Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room, there can be little doubt of the verdict.

Kelly Jane Torrance is arts and culture editor of Brainwash. Her Web site is kellyjanetorrance.com.

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