Tag Archives: B

ENRON: THE SMARTEST GUYS IN THE ROOM

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Though Enron has become a byword for the corporate chicanery of the last decade, and there’s been lots of news coverage of the duplicitous accounting and horrific practices of the Houston-based company (including the best-selling book by Bethany McLean and Peter Elkind which serves as a major source of this documentary), most Americans are probably still hazy about the precise facts of the scandal. This film by Alex Gibney does a fine job of presenting the story in an accessible, if obviously charged, fashion. One could never accuse it of taking a calm, objective approach to the scandal–it’s an activist film–but under the circumstances that’s quite understandable and defensible. And its attitude isn’t one of stern, righteous indignation–which would certainly be justifiable–as much as of almost bemused amazement that such a grotesque perversion of ethics and propriety could have gone undetected and unpunished for so long.

Of course, Gibney is fortunate in that Enron–not unlike the bureaucracies of twentieth-century totalitarian regimes–left behind a huge archive of its own malfeasance, saving evidence of its own perfidy to such an extent that even frenzied last-minute efforts to purge the files, as it were, came up very short. So part of the material presented here consists of filmed pep rallies given to bolster employee morale by Ken Lay, Jeff Skilling and other executives as the company devised more and more “innovative” means to expand its activities and bolster its balance sheet. (Most notable among the latter was Skilling’s highly imaginative scheme to count future estimated profits as though they were already in hand, thereby camouflaging present losses with prospective gains.) And there are the tapes of those horrifying telephone conversations between company energy traders, joyously manipulating electric production in California to exacerbate the blackout crisis there and so increase Enron’s profits. But these “primary” sources are put into proper context by the clear, crisp narrative delivered without exaggeration by Peter Coyote, news clips, excerpts from interviews with corporate whistleblowers and journalists who covered the scandal, and portions of congressional hearings in which company executives were grilled by members of the U.S. Congress, some of whom had probably profited from the largesse Enron distributed to politicians over the years.

Enron’s story, of course, has become a cautionary tale of how corporate greed can overcome every scruple and circumvent all the trip-wires supposedly designed to detect it early on. (After all, the company couldn’t have flourished, in its duplicitous way, had not the accounting firm of Arthur Anderson, Wall Street brokerages, financial news organizations and governmental watchdog committees been somewhat complicit in the process. (Some, like Anderson, paid a very heavy price.) And Enron was only the tip of the iceberg: WorldCom wasn’t far behind. The tale also grows poignant when some caught up in the operation take their own lives, and thousands of employees discover that they’re not only out of work but that the pension funds they so assiduously invested in company stock, at the encouragement of their own executives, are now totally lost–even though those same executives were pocketing millions as the stock price went south.

One might complain that at times “Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room” comes off as a bit too smart itself, almost smug in its often jokey post-mortem of the company’s excesses. But on the whole it acquits itself remarkably well. And while the film might serve as instructional source in business schools about what not to do, that’s probably too much to hope for. At best it will serve to suggest the sorts of questions outsiders should ask about any corporation’s doings in judging the actualities of its performance.

Good luck in the market! Looks like you’ll need it. But at least this movie is a pretty sure bet.

ARARAT

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“Ararat” is a complex, ambitious film which aims not only to portray the massacre of hundreds of thousands of Armenians in Turkey in 1915–a hotly-debated, frequently denied event that Hitler allegedly alluded to in urging the Final Solution upon his comrades–but also to examine the psychological impact the disaster has had on the Armenian psyche. It’s obviously a project close to the heart of writer-director Atom Egoyan, himself of Armenian descent, and he has fashioned it into a dense, dreamlike rumination on history, memory, myth and the relationship between reality and artistic representation.

Egoyan is a thoughtful, challenging filmmaker–his 1997 adaptation of Russell Banks’ “The Sweet Hereafter” is one of the finest pictures of the last decade, and “Exotica” (1994) and “Felicia’s Journey” (1999), though not its equal, are also exceptional pieces–and one has to admire the breadth, intricacy and haunting quality he brings to “Ararat.” It would certainly have been easier to construct a straightforwardly chronological drama set against the events of 1915, something with overtones of both “Lawrence of Arabia” and “Schindler’s List.” But Egoyan isn’t interested simply in conveying historical information, or in issuing a cinematic condemnation of what he plainly sees as an act of genocide. His aim is far more complicated: he wants to suggest the layers of meaning and distance that separate the actual event from the echoes that resonate in the hearts and minds of contemporary Armenians, wherever they might live. He has fashioned his script, therefore, as the story of a film being made about the slaughter, and further as a depiction of some of the damaged figures involved in making it–most notably an art historian whose study of a painter who survived the episode leads to her participation in the project; her troubled stepdaughter, who blames the woman for the death (possibly by suicide) of her father; and her son, who’s in love with his stepsister and estranged from his mother as a result. A goodly portion of the narrative, moreover, is told through a conversation between the son, who’s gone to the site of the massacre to film the remnants of the devastation, and a customs official who suspects that the film canisters might actually contain contraband. All of this (including a backstory concerning the customs officer, who can’t accept the homosexual lifestyle of his own son, the partner of an actor in the film) is presented in a fractured, non-serial form that mixes past with present, artistic recreation with memories and simple imaginings, and elaborate action sequences with extended monologues. Many viewers will probably find the result confusing and obscure, and it’s undeniable that there’s an artificial feel to the film, with its deliberate pace, intentionally hesitant and stilted manner, and disdain for chronology; certainly it demands one’s full attention, something that today’s audiences–accustomed to movies so uncomplicated that one can easily get everything they have to offer with one eye closed–are reluctant to give. The style of “Ararat,” however, isn’t just an affectation; it’s central to Egoyan’s vision. The picture isn’t merely about the historical occurrence but also about the difficulty of comprehending it artistically and dealing with it emotionally; the moody, elegiac, disjointed effect is meant to distance us from it and, in a sense, put us in the same uncertain emotional and intellectual state as the characters. (We’re never allowed to forget, for example, that the 1915 sequences are cinematic recreations–they’re kept slightly synthetic and melodramatic to suggest physically imperfect and emotionally heightened representations, just like a painting of the artist whom the historian is studying, which is constantly compared to a photograph on which it’s based.) Though the approach isn’t entirely successful–the final suggestion that the very process of learning about the Armenian tragedy can lead to some sort of personal conversion is rather pat, and there are times when the rhythm seems dilatory and the enigmatic atmosphere more than a trifle strained–you have to admire the audacity and elegance of Egoyan’s design, and his refusal to play on the heartstrings.

The actors are obviously devoted to fulfilling the director’s vision, but in doing so some seem too self-effacing and others not quite settled into their roles. As the customs official, for example, Christopher Plummer is stiffer than usual, and Arsinee Khanjian (Egoyan’s wife) doesn’t escape a hint of amateurishness as the historian. Marie-Josee Croze is exaggerated as her stepdaughter, but by contrast as her son David Alpay shows affecting restraint and sincerity. Among those involved in the film-within-a-film, Charles Aznavour radiates calm authority as the director, and as its stars Elias Koteas and Egoyan stalwart Bruce Greenwood work diligently; but the filmmaker’s epigrammatic style leaves them all seeming rather mannered.

Ultimately “Ararat” proves too cerebral an exercise to carry the emotional wallop Egoyan is striving after—”The Sweet Hereafter,” while dealing with equally universal themes, was simpler and more direct, and infinitely more powerful. Despite its flaws, however, one can’t help but admire the film’s reach, even when the goal exceeds Egoyan’s grasp.