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US: Enron Movie 'Ultimate Morality Tale'

by Mark LeibovichWashington Post
April 29th, 2005

 

 

Enron is a well-worn story of many things: accounting irregularities, energy deregulation, New Economy hysteria, and other matters that contributed to one of the largest bankruptcies in U.S. history. The saga has been picked over like a carcass by journalists, government watchdogs and plaintiffs. It has been the subject of books, business school case studies, government investigations and a made-for-TV movie.

All of that gave Alex Gibney pause. What could he -- a filmmaker with limited background in business or finance -- possibly add to the cultural record of Enron?

His pause lasted a few seconds.

"Economics is a story about human survival," Gibney said during a recent visit to Washington to promote his new documentary, "Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room," opening here today. "It's always about the people. Enron is no different."

Gibney, who wrote and produced the critically acclaimed "Trials of Henry Kissinger" in 2002, is at heart a student of anthropology, particularly as it relates to power and influence. The disgraced energy firm offered him a large canvas.

"Yes, there had been a lot about Enron in the press," says Gibney, 50, who is soft-spoken and intense behind dark glasses. "But I felt that, like me, no one really knew what . . . had gone on there."

He means the human stories in what he calls "the ultimate morality tale" behind the gleaming veneer of the onetime gas pipeline company that, before its collapse, would swell -- along with its stock price -- into the country's seventh-largest corporation.

In one of the film's most striking scenes, Gibney juxtaposes images of car crashes caused by malfunctioning traffic lights in California (during rolling blackouts that were orchestrated, in part, by Enron traders who were exporting power out of the state) with audiotapes of the traders telling jokes and footage of the famous experiment conducted by psychologist Stanley Milgram in which he told his subjects to administer electric shocks of increasing intensity to "learners." In some cases, Milgram's subjects were even willing to administer supposedly lethal shocks of electricity.

"I wanted to give a sense that as a Milgram subject hits the button, he's making cars crash in California," Gibney says. "Given the right circumstance, people can do horrible things."

"The Smartest Guys in the Room" is based on the best-selling book of the same name by Fortune magazine writers Bethany McLean and Peter Elkind, both of whom appear in the documentary. While the book is an exhaustive, 440-page account of Enron's rise and collapse, complete with descriptions of Enron financial and accounting machinations, the film is essentially a series of cinematic profiles.

"The documentary cannot be called muckraking, as the muck has already been well-raked," says film critic David Edelstein, writing on Slate.com. "But Gibney's recounting has a touch of playful sadism that I quite enjoyed."

"Over a period of time, it's easy to forget the magnitude of Enron," says Rep. Henry Waxman (D-Calif.), a vocal critic of the company, who attended a screening of the documentary in Washington last week. "The film was masterful in focusing on the individuals involved, rather than the sheer volume and complexity of the scandal."

But this doesn't mean Gibney's reporting came easily. The Department of Justice was not helpful in providing documents or tapes, Gibney says. And what remains of Enron -- basically handfuls of people working to settle the company's debts and baby-sit its lawsuits -- offered no help. "Even now, Enron is still playing the game," he says.

Mimi Swartz, the author of another book on Enron, says that a lot of the preceding efforts to portray the story on-screen -- particularly a CBS movie that Gibney calls "terrible" -- made people skeptical that it could be done well. But Gibney won over many sources with his quick mastery of the story, Swartz says. "Plus, his reputation preceded him."

Gibney won an Emmy in 1992 for "Pacific Century," a PBS documentary about the Asian economy. That constituted his one foray into economic reporting. "But I have always had the bug to understand more about the political economy," he says. Enron struck him as the ultimate study in how politics and the economy intersect. "It is a high-octane story," Gibney says. In places, "you can ultimately feel the adrenaline the perps were experiencing." At the same time, Gibney says, "I wanted to make this movie approachable to anybody who cares about their money."

Like McLean and Elkind's book, the film begins with the suicide of Enron executive Cliff Baxter in 2002, shortly after the company's collapse. In the film, McLean describes Baxter as manic-depressive, a characterization that Baxter's widow, Carol, contested after a screening for former Enron employees in Houston last week. "He was never diagnosed with that illness," Baxter told McLean and Gibney, according to the Associated Press. "Smartest Guys in the Room" includes a dramatization of Baxter shooting himself in his wife's car. He left a note on the dashboard that read, in part, "Where once there was great pride, now it's gone."

It is apt that "Smartest Guys in the Room" focuses chiefly on the smartest of Enron smarties, the trio of board chairman Ken Lay, chief executive Jeffrey Skilling and chief financial officer Andrew Fastow. They are rendered -- particularly Lay and Skilling -- as rabid avatars of deregulation, crusading before Congress and elsewhere for the need to free business from any manner of government control.

Gibney makes liberal use of rarely seen company promotional footage and audiotapes to evoke the giddiness that pervaded Enron -- as it did so many "New Economy" firms -- during the late-'90s stock boom. The executives are heard hyping Enron's stock (even while they themselves were divesting), asserting the moral rectitude of their work (Enron is "on the side of the angels," Skilling says) and then, when things start falling apart, covering their backsides. ("I don't care what you say about the company," Fastow told McLean, who was working on a story about Enron for Fortune. "Just don't make me look bad.")

As he speaks of Enron's maestros, Gibney -- who spent 10 months on the project -- exhibits a contempt bred by familiarity, at least secondhand. (Despite many approaches, Lay, Skilling and Fastow declined to be interviewed for the film.)

"Fastow I just found to be a very weak man," says Gibney. "He is venal and selfish, but mostly just weak." Skilling, he says, "sensed that venality and weakness in Fastow," which he leveraged to his advantage. Lay is "simply unreflective," Gibney says. "He is unwilling and incapable of seeing just how motivated by avarice he is. He has to believe he's above all this, even though he allows it to happen."

Lay and Skilling have been indicted on felony fraud charges and will stand trial next year. Fastow pleaded guilty to conspiracy charges and could serve a maximum of 10 years in prison.

Gibney compares Enron's top executives to science fiction filmmakers. Bold, creative, willing to make things up and expert in getting people -- on Wall Street, in their auditor's office -- to suspend disbelief. "They were skilled at making the Enron story seem so convincing that everyone wanted to believe it.

"That's just human nature at work here."





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