17 April 2008 | EUyeshima
Unfettered Hubris Drives Intriguing Account of Enron Scandal
Even after reading Kurt Eichenwald's "Conspiracy of Fools: A True Story", I was not prepared for the near-Greek tragedy presented in this smartly produced documentary of the Enron scandal based on yet another book by journalists Bethany McLean and Peter Elkind. Directed by Andy Gibney, the 2005 film follows the complicated rise and fall of Enron in an easy-to-follow, chronological order since the mid-1980's, using actor Peter Coyote's lucid voice-over narration. Enron started as a moderate-sized Houston gas-pipeline company that grew exponentially, reaping benefits for shareholders and far more so for the Enron executive team for a long, uninterrupted stretch. Billions of dollars were collected due to speculative mark-to-market accounting techniques approved by the SEC, and Enron consequently became one of the world's largest natural-gas suppliers.
What resonates most from this searing film is how circumstantially pathological the chief villains are in this true corporate morality story. While the infamous Ken Lay comes across as the corrupt figurehead we have already come to know through news reports, it's really Enron CFO Andy Fastow (dubbed appropriately "The Sorcerer's Apprentice") and especially President and COO Jeff Skilling, who are mercilessly exposed here. Skilling is portrayed as a brilliant leader and a corporate Darwinist, whose favorite book is Richard Dawkins' "The Selfish Gene", which he apparently translated into a bloodless performance review policy that worked like a genetic algorithm for people. Employees were rated on a 1-5 scale based on the amount of money one made for the company. Skilling mandated that between 10-15% of employees had to be rated as 5's (worst). And to get a rating of 5 meant that one was immediately fired. This review process was dubbed "rank and yank". Such was a typical example of his survivalist thinking.
The corruption spread throughout the company, as Enron was responsible for, among other things, gaming the Northern California "rolling blackouts" in 2001, whereby the company profited as huge parts of the state were plunged into darkness. Citizens were threatened by a deregulation plan that essentially enabled a number of immoral Enron traders (led by Tim Belden) to place calls that drove up energy-market prices and took advantage of power-plant shutdowns. Of course, the Bush family dynasty does not come across unscathed in the Enron story and justifiably so according to their inextricable ties to Lay. Gibney effectively uses video footage from testimony at congressional hearings, as well as interviews with disillusioned former employees such as Mike Muckleroy and whistle-blower Sherron Watkins (who uses some effective pop culture references like "Body Heat" and Jonestown to get her points across).
There are some amusing vignettes and images that tie some of the disparate elements together with excessive glibness. The documentary is best when it sticks to the facts, for this is one inarguable case where fact is truly stranger than fiction. Extras are plentiful on the 2006 DVD. Gibney provides an informative albeit verbose commentary track, and four deleted scenes, about twenty minutes in total, are included that become redundant with the film's portrayal of corporate malfeasance. There is also a fourteen-minute making-of featurette, as well as a "Where Are They Now?" snippet on the principals and three separate conversations with McLean and Elkind on how they got the story, how they validated their findings, and their enthusiastic reaction to the film. Other bonus materials include Gibney reading from scripts of skits performed at Enron and a Firesign Theater sketch about Enron's demise, as well as Fortune Magazine articles written by McLean and Elkind and a gallery of editorial cartoons.