A kind of quasi-apocalyptic zeitgeist took hold in America in the waning months of 2001. It seemed that major institutions came under assault when, on the heels of 9/11 and the Catholic Church’s sexual abuse revelations, Enron suddenly imploded. More than the other events, it was the extraordinary fraudulence of that once mighty company’s hierarchy that most unsettled the American psyche, since it shrouded in shame our national preoccupation with obtaining wealth. The mordant documentary Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room cleverly deconstructs the men who reminded us of the dark side of the American dream.
Set to a kinetic soundtrack of soulful pop songs, the film is a series of profiles in vice. Zeroing in on such compelling, wickedly intriguing characters appears to be writer-director Alex Gibney’s documentary-making MO. The Trials of Henry Kissinger, which he wrote in 2002, deploys the same disarming technique in order to make subject and story accessible to the uninitiated. (Who can forget the image of Kissinger’s face airbrushed onto a posing female model, accompanied by Jean Knight’s “Mr. Big Stuff”?) The approach helps make the abstract concrete, whether it’s the dry contents of declassified memos or, in this case, the recondite world of derivatives and mark-to-market accounting. The conceit works so well that by the time the film ends, our reaction to the now notorious Ken Lay and Jeffrey Skilling is more sophisticated than righteous outrage; we actually regard them with pity.
Lay and Skilling are classic tragic characters: incredibly intelligent men felled by their own hubris. Lay, a PhD in economics, founded Enron with the aid of billions of dollars in government largess provided by the administration of his close friend, Bush pere. As an academic, Lay was affiliated with the conservative crusade against government regulation of industry, and seized on the opportunities created by the massive deregulation spearheaded by the movement’s demigod, Ronald Reagan. Skilling, a Harvard Business School graduate, was the wild-eyed revolutionary who captivated the business media’s attention with his creativity. He is credited with pioneering the idea of trading kilowatts of energy like we trade stocks. Lay and Skilling’s much vaunted business acumen and accumulation of obscene wealth, however, seem to have destroyed their ability to make even the most basic moral and ethical decisions.
But the film rejects the notion that it was just the men at the top who were bereft of scruples. We are also privy to phone conversations between Enron’s traders as they gloat about bilking Californians to the tune of billions during the state’s energy crisis, which was, ironically, the result of deregulation. In one exchange, we listen as a trader tells a plant manager to find a pretext for shutting down his power station in order to reduce artificially the state’s energy supply, resulting in skyrocketing costs for consumers. Giddy at the prospects of cashing their ill-gotten bonuses, the traders evince no sympathy for customers enduring hardships, particularly those who are sick, elderly, and poor.
The film encourages us to wonder whether this kind of uninhibited avarice is more typical than deviant. Collusion in this case was wide and deep. The auditors, analysts, and investment bankers were all in cahoots with Enron, whose infamy would be rivaled by subsequent meltdowns at other corporations, like Worldcom and Global Crossing. The perpetrators weren’t faceless corporations, but people afflicted with what William James once called our national disease, the “exclusive worship of the bitch-goddess Success.” And so, the movie suggests, it can happen again. Indeed, our celebration of wealth has only become more perverse since Enron’s collapse. Think of Donald Trump, whose popularity has exploded in recent years.
Documentaries like Enron are fast becoming the preferred artistic vehicle for examining and criticizing corporations. In the last year alone, we have been treated to similarly sardonic takes on Big Business in The Corporation and The Yes Men. (Roger & Me is probably the genre’s seminal work.) The films are obviously tapping into a growing anti-corporate sentiment, an outgrowth of the anti-globalization movement. But Enron offers a less strident and more nuanced critique of its subject, focusing on the individuals who make up a particular corporation. The film shows how our cultural myths and values can promote certain behaviors. In the end, it reminds us of our own vulnerability when faced with the prospect of extraordinary wealth.