Sunday, December 4, 2016

Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room


Not Rated (probable R for Language, Nudity, Brief Violent Images and a Drug Reference)

With Enron, it's a case of the Emperor with no Clothes.  It wasn't a good company, by any stretch of the word, that went bad.  It was rotten to the core since its inception.  The people at Enron weren't good businessmen with a great product that suddenly vanished.  They were terrible businesspeople whose only skills were exploiting the loopholes to make people believe that they were good salesmen.  And if their magic show failed, they had the power to crush their enemies.

Alex Gibney, who made this documentary, sees this not so much as a crime story or even a peek behind the corporate world.  Instead, he views it as a story of human nature.  It's a story about greed, vanity, and hubris.  But it's also a story of how dangerous someone with a tremendous amount of drive can be.  We love to see stories of people fighting the odds and coming out the better man.  But what happens if that person's drive is going towards something insidious and corrupt?  Perhaps most importantly, it's a cautionary tale about taking things at face value.  If nothing else, Enron was great at making themselves look good.

This documentary works because Gibney lets the information speak for itself.  He never loses focus or gets distracted.  And he finds the sweet spot between too technical and too dumb.  No one is likely to get lost in this movie, provided you don't turn your brain off.  But because of the wealth of information and the clarity with which Gibney presents it, that's unlikely to happen.

One thing I like is how Gibney lets us draw our own conclusions about some of the material.  For example, while it's never explicitly stated, enough evidence is shown that Ken Lay's ties to the Bush family undoubtedly worked to Enron's benefit with energy deregulation.  And it's not Michael Moore-ish slander, since both Dubya and Bush senior make a video send off to a departing Enron executive in the early 80's.

In a way, the Enron scandal was a wake-up call to the world.  The problem with Enron is that for Ken Lay and Jeff Skilling, the goal was to make as much money as possible with no regards to ethics or common sense.  Both men had backgrounds that set them on course for destruction.  Ken Lay grew up in poverty and wanted to become rich by any means necessary, he would hire anyone, no matter how sleazy they were, who would help him achieve that goal.  Jeff Skilling was an ex-nerd, who, as Americans love to call it, "pulled himself up by his bootstraps."

Neither man was who they seemed.  Ken Lay was a businessman who presented himself as grandfatherly, wise and heaps of Southern charm and civility.  Underneath the façade he was as corrupt as any corporate bigwig cliché you can think of.  Jeff Skilling presented himself as a sort-of Steve Jobs for the business world, when in reality, he was a gambling junkie (business wise) fraught by insecurity.

The problem is that we haven't woken up.  Synergistic corruption, or criminal acts on part of many companies, is what allowed Enron to last as long as it did.  The presence of so much wrongdoing led to a diffusion of responsibility, where it seemed like no one was responsible when in fact everyone was responsible.  It doesn't take a genius to take their behavior and carry it over to the behavior of Wall Street that led to the Great Recession.  Or the source of dark money in politics.

The sad thing is, only these guys got punished, and not nearly hard enough.

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