In the early 1960s, Yale psychologist Stanley Milgram conducted experiments to ferret out the "element X" that had allowed normal Germans to become atrocity-committing Nazis. He urged each of his subjects to electrically shock an unseen victim to varying degrees - up to and including death. Roughly half the shockers had no problem with "killing" their "victims" when ordered to do so.
In Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room, filmmaker Alex Gibney (The Crimes of Henry Kissinger) juxtaposes footage of the Milgram Experiments with that of cackling Enron traders as they game California's rolling blackouts for every sanguineous cent. The comparison represents everything that's nervy-fine about this smart postmortem of the infamous Ponzi scheme that called itself Enron. Less successful is Gibney's attempt to cast company main man Jeffrey Skilling as someone we should not only care about, but view as tragic. More on that in a moment.
In a move befitting a profile of a company seemingly designed to implode, Gibney opens his film with a recreation of the suicide of former Vice Chairman Cliff Baxter. The sequence is set to the accompaniment of Billie Holiday's "God Bless the Child" (the first of many text-enriching music cues). From there on, the movie is a pretty straight account of Enron's devolution from New Paradigm wonder-corp - headed by Texas oilman Kenneth Lay, the single largest donor to Dubya's 2000 election campaign - to Chapter 11 bankruptcy.
To tell the tale, Gibney relies on interviews with ex-Enron employees (who show varying degrees of remorse), media bites, Enron in-house recordings and pirated-looking footage from God-knows-where. (We even see a "video valentine" from the Bush family to an exiting Enron staffer.) Those found materials chronicle the energy-scam outfit's manifold nasty bits. There's Skilling's brilliant version of book-cooking, known as "mark to market" - meaning posting profits on long-term contracts the day they were signed. (Traffic's "Dear Mr. Fantasy" provides comment.) There's the spectacle of nearly every financial group in the Wall Street phone book doling out the billions in loans that enabled Enron to keep mark-to-marketing while the company squirreled away losses into shell corporations and other accounting sleights-of-hand. And, finally, there are the tens of thousands of employees left jobless in the wake of Enron's implosion, their $1.2 billion in retirement savings gone and the company's nose-dived stock devastating 401K plans worldwide.
But that's only after our collective jaws drop as greed-frenzied traders chuckle at the prospect of robbing the retirement funds of America's "Grandma Millies." Elsewhere, company kingpins knowingly dump their soon-to-be-worthless stock while advising their employees to buy and buy more.
Gibney shows no mercy to Lay - the son of a preacher man, and yes, the song's here - who comes across as a slightly less emotional than a lizard and with the ethics of a soiled doily. It's Skilling who captures the director's imagination. The COO's transformation from nerd to buff, Lasiked, hair-implanted, macho wealth wrangler is often darkly funny. But the sheer magnitude of his crimes somewhat dulls Gibney's ambition to frame his fall as a cautionary tale about American reinvention. The collateral damage of Skilling's low-visible-remorse Gatsby routine is just too high. The ultimate effect of his makeover (and Gibney's film) is to be sickened by the depths to which "free market" humans will descend, chortling in contempt for loser shareholders all the way down.