Television

Enron: The TV Movie

Kane and Dennehy acting Crooked
Kane and Dennehy acting Crooked

Crooked E: The Unshredded Truth About Enron (CBS, Jan. 5, 9 p.m.) derives its valuation, fittingly, from what Enron’s upper management used to call a “virtual asset.” In this case, it’s the movie’s “star,” Brian Dennehy. He plays Mr. Blue, yet another flushed, anguished company man and high-functioning alcoholic. (Has any actor been forced to consume as much stage Scotch as Dennehy?) But Dennehy’s billing has been inflated. The movie in fact stars Christian Kane, as Brian Cruver, the young former Enron employee on whose book, Anatomy of Greed, the movie is based.

Directed by punk chronicler Penelope Spheeris, who I suspect is behind the high-spirited use of Pink Floyd’s “Money” as the movie’s opening song, Crooked E tells a goofball version of Enron’s fall and Cruver’s moral awakening. Weaned on ‘80s greedology and the moving words of his friend Mr. Blue, a composite character based on several Enron executives, Cruver is hired at the big E by mistake. This paperwork error doesn’t bode well. Still, he’s dazzled by the gleaming Houston HQ, a palace of beaming bigs in Rolexes, stripper-secretaries, cocksure middle management, and a handsome team of junior sharks.

The scenes of Cruver’s initiation are the finest part of this surprisingly enjoyable TV movie. On his first day, in the elevator, he stares at the company’s closed-circuit pravda TV: It shows a cheerful worker in a red hard hat trumpeting the company’s “$240 billion in revenues.” On another video, Kenneth Lay (Mike Farrell) spells out the RICE system: Respect, Integrity, Communication, Excellence. At last, Cruver, by turns perplexed and aroused (Kane mugs exorbitantly), endures an orientation speech by a stewardess type in peach, who, while praising Enron, hints that traditional oil businesses suffer from a failure of imagination. At Enron, in contrast, “We’re innovators: Virtual assets now account for 80 percent of our total business.” In a still more sugary voice, she assures the recruits, “And to ensure our financial integrity, Arthur Andersen auditors work right here in the towers.”

Har-har! I don’t know about you, but I can’t resist these broad strokes—especially as timed by Spheeris, director of Wayne’s World.

Cruver can’t make heads or tails of his new job, but soon he’s cold-calling with the best of them, hawking oblique insurance in Enron’s newfound “Bankruptcy Division.” Blinding himself to the hazy details of his workplace, he turns instead to the go-getter in the next cubicle, who chants a medley of movie sales blather: “Make some money! You snooze you lose! Later we’ll be dead!”

Farrell as Ken Lay
Farrell as Ken Lay

Chief Lay encourages his colleagues to take pride in the company’s inchoate accomplishments, namely “commoditizing risks and creating new markets.” The sententious Mr. Blue (“Enron is deep space”) is now among the company’s fattest cats—Maserati, entourage, calls from the Guatemalan president. And Cruver prowls around the sales desk, shouting at a reluctant client: “You think Enron got to be the big dog by Lay and Skilling sitting around going, ‘I-I don’t know, it’s a little too risky for us.’ No! They eat risk for breakfast, and they crap out most of the earnings by lunch!” (We’ve come a long way, David Mamet.) Cruver also lives large (Lexus, Burberry), acts boorish, and ignores his sweet fiancee, Courtney (Shannon Elizabeth). He says he’s been Enronized—and he likes it. On vacation with Courtney’s family, he’s asked what his work entails. “You trade in virtual markets of risk,” Cruver snaps. “It’s really complicated.”

In the spring of 2001, an impudent reporter from PBS’s Frontline asks Lay and Shilling a very intrusive question about the company’s balance sheet. Where’s the money? Under pressure, Lay produces a quarterly earnings report alleging no problems at all; here at the Big E, we’ve got the best numbers yet. And then, Lay adds, in an exquisite example of jargony circumlocution:

We’re recognizing a one-time, non-recurring charge in the third quarter of $1.01 billion. Included in these non-recurring charges are losses associated with the early termination of certain structured financial arrangements for the previously disclosed entry, which reduce shareholder equity by 1.2 billion.

Poetry!

Enron employees enjoy false fruits
Enron employees enjoy false fruits

The brass at Enron, while now frantically dumping their stock, nevertheless host a raucous quarterly earnings party, an event that Cruver promises Courtney will be “very sophisticated.” Another easy laugh: The boss’s big door opens to reveal Lone Star raunch, including Hooters-esque women dancing on tables, big red men leering, and booming stereo pop.

The rest is history: Lay’s World can’t party on forever. Cruver and his ilk buy Enron stock. Their bosses sell. Jeff Skilling, the CEO, resigns. Documents are maniacally shredded. The Arthur Andersen team idles, downloading digital photos of their grandchildren. Debt’s been hidden, Enron has inflated estimates in their earning reports, and, in collusion with anyone who’d collude, the company magically transformed its projections into revenue.           

Courtney moves out and Cruver, bereft, finally pays a visit to his former mentor. Blue’s blue, drinking Johnnie Walker blue, and he slurs some final bons mots: “I had three wives. They all said I was married to Enron. And now Enron is leaving me.” The complicit wretch is suddenly filled with self-loathing. And he’s looking forward to prison.

Money: It’s a gas. Cruver heads out to find honest Courtney literally tending her own garden. He’s reformed, he loves her, and he wants his helpmeet to come home. No more Lexuses or plasma TVs. They’d be decent, if poor. (Unless, hey, Cruver gets a book deal!) Courtney, bless her, says yes.