Friday, February 5, 2010

Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room

(Alex Gibney, US, 2005)

If there's a film that serves as a better indictment of late-modern capitalism's particular brand of perversity, I'm unaware of it. As a journalistic-style documentary, E:TSGITR is tight and incisive; it covers the salient points of Enron's rise and fall, and it keeps the narrative grounded in the stories of the people who were involved (for the most part, the perpetrators and not the thousands of victims, but such is the focus here). While the film is by no means comprehensive - several gaps of detail and exposition exist in the story - at no point did I feel that it was lacking any crucial detail; after all, it's basically an adaptation of the book, and any additional info is available at the local library. What makes the film truly exemplary is its focus on ideology - a recognition that Enron was not an anomaly, a bad-apple case. Gibney, taking more than one cue from his source material, sketches Enron as an avatar of contemporary capitalism - the black heart at the center of a diseased system. It's to his credit that the film doesn't devolve into proselytizing, and is instead framed as a human tragedy. And like any grand-scale human tragedy, it's compulsively watchable, even when it enrages you or makes you queasy: The raw hubris and greed on display gradually mounts, and as an audience member, to see behind the curtain is simultaneously fascinating and bizarre. How could they be so greedy? How could they be so mendacious? How could they be, finally, so freaking stupid?

The answer, made simply and directly, is that it was actually quite easy. Enron was not a case of high-flying, predatory villains who somehow snuck into the ranks of High Capitalism unnoticed and set about wreaking havoc. It is the logical eventuality of a system that is desperately, fundamentally flawed, and it is only the tip of the iceberg. The antagonists of Enron are portrayed not as monsters, but as people who became grotesque and monstrous when given enormous amounts of money and power. That's not to say that they weren't flawed to begin with; certainly, if one were inclined, one could concoct all manner of psychological explanations for their behavior (Skilling was a picked-on nerd out for revenge, Lay was a deeply insecure ninny who was blinded by a vapid religiosity, etc.) These details aren't elided, but neither are they given emphasis that's out of proportion with their actual relevance to the case. The main point is that the Problem is bigger than Enron, bigger than Skilling, bigger than Lay, and even bigger than Cheney and Bush. It's woven into the fabric of our economic system, and it will happen again and again unless the system is changed.

It's tempting to make this film something it isn't, and I could go on at length about all the juicy ideological complexity undergirding the film's subject. Principally, it is straightforward journalism, a polished version of the kind of thing you'd see on TV as a true crime show. And as far as that goes, I mean it as a compliment; its an exemplary investigative document, portraying in detail how Enron rose and fell. This isn't a mean feat; as has become the norm, the financial shenanigans were recondite and surrounded by secrecy, and the filmmakers are adept at breaking it down into a somewhat straightforward narrative. Basically, Enron's big idea was to building a trading exchange for securities made up of energy "products"; in effect, they were building a virtual casino. The worth of the company was a fiction, based on posited future prices of energy that were backed up with little actual infrastructure and all kinds of mind-blisteringly abstruse mathematics. In covering all of these details, there are plenty of blank spots. It's a minor fault, though, and a more thorough treatment of the nuts-and-bolts of Enron's devious schemes would surely require a mini-series. The information that is on display is presented directly enough to make it clear that this tendency toward reckless gambling and make-believe profits wasn't just the product of one or two disordered minds. It was an integral part of the overall system.

In case all of this is sounding familiar, it is: this is exactly the kind of thing that occurred with mortgage-backed securities and credit-default swaps. What struck me so deeply about the material in E:TSGITR is that (if we're to trust the filmmakers and journalists) Enron can be looked at as a canary-in-the-coal-mine of the present woes. All the raw materials are there: deregulation, securitization, reckless betting and speculation, a blinkered optimism in the continued growth of the market, and the complete disconnect from physical products and process by the financial institutions. As has been repeated ad nauseam, the United States doesn't manufacture things any more. We make financial products, and we show the rest of the world how to bet on them. Enron was the first instance of that exact ethos in all of its potential danger, and the collapse of the housing bubble is only the most recent.

This isn't what the movie is about, exactly. But it is the heart of the movie's message, and it's the most important thing to take away from watching it. Five years ago, it would have been just another sharp little doc about corporate malfeasance. Seen today, it seems uncannily prescient.

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