Director: Alex Gibney
Writer: Peter Elkind, Alex Gibney, Bethany McLean
Cinematographer: Maryse Alberti
by Jon Cvack
I didn’t fully appreciate this movie when I first saw it. I was in college and a bit too ignorant to fully comprehend what and how this company did what it did. Watching it again and having worked for a few corporations, I have a better understanding of the story and the type of individual it takes to do what they did. These men were monsters, existing within a system that required an extravagant amount of hubris, forced to fulfill one mission - make investors happy and increase share price.
From its inception CEO Kenneth Lay ordered his senior management team to make the company millions, plain and simple. The company maintained a Darwinian employment model whereby each employee was evaluated consistently and the bottom 15% were axed, creating fierce interoffice competition. Within two years Lay was embroiled in scandal after the company was gambling money into oil markets against SEC regulations. Lay was removed and Jeff Skilling was brought in. He came up with the idea of mark-to-market accounting where Enron would report profits before deals were signed regardless of whether or not any money was actually made, which allowed Enron to look more valuable than it was. This was all in addition to dozens of other dubious ventures. Eventually you realize that this was a business that was willing to cash in on whatever ideas would turn the quickest profit, no matter the ethics.
Most people will remember that they essentially cornered the California energy market, shutting down power in order to drive costs up. And when the government attempted to regulate the market to ensure Californianians had access to power Enron began shutting down plants. Done during a record heat wave, a few residents died from the lack of air conditioning.
The business revolved around the unwavering desire for more money and more power. It seemed that the dominant mission was to think of any and all ways to get around the system in order to turn the quickest profit. It’s also clear that this model demanded a very colorful type of personality. Take for instance Lou Pai, who was CEO of the Enron Energy Services and squandered most of his money on strippers. Or the fact that Jeff Skilling would take his senior management team on extravagant and dangerous adventures all over the world. Many have said it and I have to agree - it’s strikingly similar to Greek Tragedy. These men could have had successful lives and enjoyable lives, if they only practiced humility. Instead, their hubris landed most of them in jail. J. Cliff Baxter committed suicide out of humility, or failure, or likely a mixture of both. Never did it seem that anyone was hired for their sense of right and wrong. They were hired for their ability to test the limits of wrong and push the line as far as possible. The film proves that not all business endeavors are honorable; that many who are savvy and intelligent are also victims of extreme narcissism, willing to do whatever it takes to win. Friends were only kept so long as they were of benefit.There is no love of the product, there is only love of the reward. When the men are on the phone talk about how grandma will burn we finally witness the complete and terrifying detachment many of these employees experienced. It’s a level of selfishness that seems more parodic than real. Some might produce music, or create a product that benefits all of mankind, or write a novel that allows a reader to connect with the author’s consciousness and feel less alone. Others will use their intelligence or raw natural talent for bad. They see no need to serve mankind. Yet in many parts of American culture these men are often celebrated before they’re caught. They are praised for their erudition and success. And when it comes crashing down, everyone reevaluates the situation.
In the end what is worse - the underprivileged kid who might sell some drugs because they have no other way to get ahead, or a genius CEO who’s willing to sacrifice his employees in a dog eat dog work environment and whose only loyalty is to the shareholders, no matter the harm it might cause the greater public? I imagine now that the dust has settled many of these individuals are thriving today, or on track to recover their careers. They are making similar decisions that could affect millions. They are being championed and praised. No one cares to ask the questions. And even if the skeletons are discovered many will turn a blind eye so long as these men and women keep providing the profits. To think that the company went bankrupt in 2001, with the housing crisis to follow seven years later, and still there's very limited oversight. I’m reminded of Michael Moore wanting to create a white collar crime version of Cops, but no one would buy it. The general public doesn’t resent the rich. They do resent the poor. The millionaire who outsourced the factory and gave away tens of thousands of jobs - that’s honorable. That’s good business. Selling weed on the street to feed your kids is despicable. The more I read about the many failures of big business, the more I realize this is becoming all too common.
BELOW: A brief summary of Jeff Skilling's business strategy
Thoughts on films, old and new
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