Enron … kind of like L. Ron, maybe?

The wife and I just got home from Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room. Wowzers. It’s one of those films about the corporate culture that makes me glad I’m a work-at-home freelancer. And it’s one of those films that makes you wonder, If the powers that be are so good at lying through their teeth to us, then how can we separate the truth-tellers from the liars?

I also wonder about the worldview, for lack of a better word, of director Alex Gibney, whose only previous film (as producer, not director) that I have seen is The Trials of Henry Kissinger.

The film is about a serious topic — how a corporation earned prestige and respect and made millions for its executives by lying about the profits it hoped to make, and all while wreaking havoc with California’s energy resources and depriving its employees of all their pensions, etc. — but it also makes good use of sarcastic or ironic humour, supplementing the interviews with thematically appropriate music selections (e.g., after an archival clip of President Reagan saying something about the “magic” of the marketplace, the next scene begins with a song about “black magic”), inserting a close-up shot of a rabbit’s face into a montage when another person says something about the company “pulling rabbits out of hats”, and so on. My wife thought these things were a gratuitous and almost schizophrenic intrusion on an otherwise solid film, but for me, they brought to mind the similarly anti-corporate films of Michael Moore and Morgan Spurlock — except this time, the director refuses to make himself part of the story, so I found myself admiring the director’s restraint!

I also think it is kind of interesting how the very first shot of the film is of a church bearing the sign “Jesus Saves”, with a giant corporate tower looming behind it; and how one of the concluding interviewees is a local pastor who is still counselling families affected by the Enron meltdown; and how the point is made that former Enron CEO Jeff Skilling was a big fan of Richard Dawkins’ The Selfish Gene, and apparently believed in fostering a highly competitive, Darwinian environment at the workplace.

… Arrrrgh. Blogger just deleted two paragraphs when I clicked on the “Preview” button.

I’m too tired to come up with two whole new paragraphs at the moment, so all I’ll say for now is that I do have some quibbles with the film — notably the stripper sequence, which is gratuitous and thus in my opinion compromises the moralistic and even spiritual implications of these other references I just cited, and the way two of the Bethany McLean interview clips begin with the camera looking somewhere else and then panning over to her. I like to think that the interviewees in the documentaries I see have no idea which parts of their verbiage will be used by the filmmakers, but you do get the sense that McLean, who co-authored the book upon which the film is based, knew she was “on” then.

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  • Anonymous

    As someone who works for a huge corporation, I suggest there is no such thing as “the corporate culture”. Each corporation has its own culture. Hospitals are corporations. So are international petrochemicals. So are banks, etc. You get the point.

    Just as each religious organization has its own culture and peculiarities (not to mention values), so too with corporations.

    There IS a growing trend towards homogeneity among corporations, but I’m not sure that includes Enron-type behavior.

  • Good point. Even so, I have so many cultures on my plate to begin with that I’m happy not to include corporate cultures among them, right now. 🙂

    Incidentally, I have quibbles with the word “values”, precisely because it tries to define essentially spiritual things in the language of economics. I owe this point to Iain Benson, a Catholic lawyer here in Canada, who makes the point that classical writers always emphasized “virtues” as something objective to which we all aspire, and not “values”, which are radically subjective and competitive.