Saturday, Apr 21, 2018
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What makes disaster film so terrifying? It s true


Former Enron finance chief Andrew Fastow in Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room.


True story.

In the late 90s, a year or so after Titanic was released and the dust on its historic box office had settled, there was talk of a sequel. Apparently it involved the ghost of Leonardo DiCaprio. Smarter heads prevailed. And yet here we are, the unofficial sequel to Titanic, a disaster picture with even juicier horrors born of great hubris and arrogance, horrors so frightening and wide-ranging and destructive, the fallout from this shipwreck is still years from settling.

It s called Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room (Magnolia, $26.98, available Tuesday), and though it was a hit at Sundance and released theatrically in a number of cities (but not Toledo) last spring, the true place for a documentary this enraging is the home where you can swear at the screen and throw a shoe or coffee cup and there s no one to tell you to keep it to yourself, or call a manager.

I suggest strapping yourself to a chair with protective restraints to get through it, because if righteous indignation is your guilty pleasure and it s everyone s Enron will play like a call to arms. It is an accounting thriller (with plenty of Titanic allusions), in the form of a documentary expose of sorts, adapted from the book of the same title by Fortune magazine writers Bethany McLean and Peter Elkind.

I know nothing about accounting, but I know that unless you had a pension with Enron, or worked for the Arthur Andersen accounting firm that crumbled alongside the energy giant, the breathtaking recklessness and go-go cockiness exhibited here might sound like outtakes from The Producers. Or science fiction. A pair of Broadway con-men would not have imagined a scheme this brazen, and cruel.

Filmmaker Alex Gibney has a nagging tendency of going heavy-handed on cheap re-enactments and irony and snide visual effects and winking songs ( That Old Black Magic, etc.) when the bone-white facts are gory enough. On the other hand, it s hard to not feel superior, and even harder to feel like the executives here shouldn t have far worse coming to them. Here was a company that produced ... who knows? Grinning like jack-o -lanterns to the same shareholders who would take a bath in its elaborate Ponzi schemes, executives called Enron the best energy company in the world.

And that meant? They bought and sold coal? Or electricity? Or natural gas? Difficult to say. The company knowingly played the California power grid into an energy crisis. We hear tape of Enron traders on the phone asking electric plant managers to close for repairs, and get creative with their reasons; they sound juiced at the idea they were singlehandedly toying with a state s energy consumption. Then they diversify into home video and Internet service. The film mentions that Enron executives even considered trading the weather whatever that meant. And not that it mattered:

Enron primarily sold hope.

The hope that the company (the seventh-largest in the world at one point) was worth as much as its executives claimed it was worth.

Nothing more.

Gibney s entertaining and harrowing picture emphasizes you don t run a company into the ground with a spectacular crash unless you had help, intentional or otherwise starting with Fortune magazine itself, which declared Enron one of the most innovative companies during the 90s. The culture of greed had grown so pervasive that companies like Enron could give off a contact high, and journalists were not immune. It didn t matter what Enron did, just that it was a huge company that claimed massive profits perception trumps all.

Enron founder Kenneth Lay and former Enron CEO Jeffrey Skilling go on trial Jan. 30, but what about the state and federal legislatures that looked the other way, that greased skids and didn t want to get in the way of men connected through friendship to the Bush family? And what about the accountants around the country who didn t protest when the books didn t add up? Or the government officials who say, to this day, Enron was a victim of regulations when Enron itself was a model reason for the need for deregulatory emergency brakes? This film names names and points a few fingers.

But again, the most shocking moments are the simple compendium of video and audio evidence. Some from congressional hearings. Others from phone conversations. And even video of the company s town meetings with its employees: Lay sifts through a stack of cards with questions written on them and stops on one and reads it aloud:

Mr. Lay, are you on crack?

During a teleconference call, Skilling explodes on a reporter who had the temerity to ask why none of the company s accounting adds up. More chilling: Enron honchos, on video, telling their employees to invest more money in their 401(k) plans at a time they had to have known the company was entirely worthless.

The punch line? Lay compares the Enron investigation to 9/11.

Aside from its value as a work of real-life absurdist theater, Gibney s film is perhaps most valuable for the clear picture it paints of a disaster so vast and tangled it might have seemed beyond comprehension to the average person.

Then again, comprehension is in the air. Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room was not the only (or even best) picture last year to take on the timely idea of the corrupting influence of power and staggering hubris. The John Le Carre adaptation The Constant Gardener (Universal, $29.98), new on video this week, finds Ralph Fiennes hunted by a sinister (and believable) conspiracy among drug companies in Africa. There s the uneven documentary Wal-Mart: The High Cost of Low Prices. The global petroleum tentacles of Syriana. And you don t have to even squint to see the ways Star Wars, Episode III The Revenge of the Sith gets in on the action.

Taken together it s a cinema paranoia for the 21st century, and one that says corruption is worse now because it s done in plain sight, by men for whom accountability is quaint. After all, Enron s motto was Ask Why.

Contact Christopher Borrelli at: or 419-724-6117.

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