Director Alex Gibney’s witty, engrossing dissection of one of the biggest corporate crimes in history has already been touted as “this year’s Fahrenheit 9/11,” a designation that might attract a few more curious patrons to theaters, but misses the mark. True, both films have virulently anti-conservative points of view, and both rely on catchy graphics, stock footage and pop tunes to underline their points. But where Moore’s film was a personal screed and incendiary editorial, Gibney is much more careful to cover his bases, present an accurate timeline of events and get opinions from both sides of the political fence. Sure, in the end it’s the “little people” who garner the film’s deepest sympathies, but along the way, we’re treated to a Faustian tale of ambition and intelligence run amok that’s more powerful than anything Oliver Stone dreamed up for Wall Street.
Basing his work on the best-selling nonfiction book about the scandal by Fortune magazine reporters Peter Elkind and Bethany McLean, Gibney describes, in relatively plain English, how one of the biggest companies in America could go under while its leaders walked away millionaires, with punishment still pending. If the facts of the scandal seemed baffling at the time, it may be because the corruption ran so deep. As Gibney points out, the men behind Enron extended themselves far beyond the realm of sketchy accounting ethics. From creating companies that simply didn’t exist, to claiming profits on unsold products that hadn’t even passed the idea stage, to defrauding California during the state’s energy crisis, it becomes clear that the company’s key executives — Kenneth Lay, Jeff Skilling and Andrew Fastow, among others —simply knew too much to plead ignorance. Perhaps the most damning moments are the Enron traders’ orgiastic victory cries of “stealing money from the poor grandmothers” during the energy crisis of 2001.
But the star of the doc is Skilling, performing the same kind of function here that George Bush did for Fahrenheit 9/11. A power-hungry nerd who transformed himself into a would-be extreme-sports stud, the unstable president-turned-CEO went perhaps the furthest in orchestrating Enron’s demise. Gibney just lets the video clips speak for themselves: He doesn’t need to make Skilling look like a fool when the man does such a good job of it himself. Skilling may not exactly give the Enron tragedy a human face, but he sure as hell makes a great movie villain.
Showing at the Maple Art Theatre (4135 W. Maple Rd., Bloomfield Hills; 248-263-2111),
Michael Hastings writes about film for Metro Times. Send comments to [email protected].