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.
What’s that line? “They’re called ‘boobs,’ Ed.”… 11:41 PDT
After reading this article in the Wall Street Journal on the subject of consumer reporters who sell their services to large companies to promote products on nationwide television tours, I want to throw my hat in the ring as America’s Go-To Movie Guy.
Studios, agents, publicists: Think about what you spend on an ad in the New York Times with yet more gush from Peter Travers or drivel from some low-wattage radio flunkie from San Bernardino. Now think about putting a fraction of that money into a critic with proven integrity.
How can I lead with my integrity and yet accept your cash? Easy! Just as these consumer reporters insist that they believe in the products they’re paid to promote, I will believe in selective, marketable aspects of your movie.
Imagine what I could have done for Oliver Stone’s widely reviled Alexander:
Me: Alexander is a colossal movie, made by a colossus of our cinema!
TV Host: But is it good?
Me: Good! What a paltry word. Is war good? Are the most magnificent questions in the history of humankind good?
TV Host: So, go see it, then?
Me: You don’t “see” Alexander.Alexander sees you.
Now imagine how I’d pitch everyone’s favorite whipping boy, Gigli:
Me: Gigli explores the nature of human sexuality as no American movie has before. It moves the boundary posts. It will leave you astonished at what movies are capable of.
TV Host: Critics are saying it stinks.
Me: Have you ever been in a room full of critics? Do you think critics have experienced the full range of human sexuality? Do you trust critics to report accurately on the fleshy intimacies of Jennifer Lopez and Ben Affleck?
TV Host: So, you’re saying they’re wrong about Gigli?
Me: I’m saying that truth is subjective and conditional. Gigli should not be seen alone, but with someone to whom you may cling. Then you must explore your mutual feelings, perhaps at Applebee’s over juicy steak tips or luscious frozen margaritas in exciting new fruit flavors. [NB: I can do product placement tailored to your movie’s demographic.]
Now think about awards time, and here I do have an inside track.
Me: That Natalie Portman has a potent sexuality, doesn’t she? And she can act, too, boy.
A.O. Scott: Do you think so? I thought her Queen Amidala was embarrassingly wooden.
Me: See, that was the teasing ambiguity of the performance. By concealing her passion under a Kabuki-esque veneer of formality, she gave one of the most complex depictions of the struggle between the private and the public persona that I’ve ever seen.
A.O. Scott: Gee, I hadn’t thought of it that way. Yes, I do believe you’re right. I think I’ll give her a rave review in the New York Times.
Act now and I’ll append an award reference to every television appearance:
“That will be a performance to reckon with at Oscar time!”
Clearly, it is time to buy up critics as government agencies and corporations have bought up reporters, political commentators, and scientists. So, buy the best. Buy America’s Go-To Movie Guy!*
*Extra fees may apply for movies by Lars von Trier.