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Assorted Crimes

Stanley Kauffmann on films.


A documentary called Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room is about more than its immediate subject. Alex Gibney, who directed, based his screenplay on a book by Bethany McLean and Peter Elkind, Fortune reporters. (It was McLean who first uncovered the Enron mess.) What Gibney has done, with sharp interviews, with some of Enron's own company footage, with television clips, and with insistent pace, is to fashion a film missile that pierces the facade of some American practices. Behind that front looms a large and ominous motif.

The details of the charges against Enron do not need to be chronicled here. In sum, the company's executives apparently lied and swindled. The charges: Enron, a huge energy provider, reported profits when there weren't any; and the executives exercised their stock options at a good price when they presumably knew that the stock was going to collapse. These men, who were already wildly rich when they allegedly began this operation, were undeterred by the fact that they would be stealing from people whom they had persuaded to invest in their company. And the danger that their employees would lose their jobs and their pensions if the frauds were found out also meant nothing to them.What did mean something to them? Greed is too simple an answer. A man with hundreds of millions who steals more hundreds of millions is not simply greedy; he seems to me aloft in a rarefied atmosphere where he feels quasi-divine, omnipotent. The cries of wounded mortals down below become a kind of flattery.

It is part of the motif that these men talk and josh like good guys. While all the above was apparently going on, Kenneth Lay, the chairman of Enron (and a Texan friend of both George Bushes), addressed his employees in the company's auditorium with a you-and-I-are-regular-fellows smirk. He and Jeffrey Skilling--another top Enron executive, another fount of aplomb--have yet to be tried. But whatever happens to them in court--even if they are fined the amounts that they are said to have stolen, even if they serve prison sentences--how will it help the twenty thousand former Enron employees now out of work and without pensions? Oh, of course, Lay and Skilling will say that they are sorry.

But, again, Gibney's film is more than an indictment of Enron leaders. This case is simply at the moment the most vivid instance of something old and coiled in America. Look at a few other recent and current cases. Arthur Andersen, the immense accounting firm, was convicted of shredding Enron documents, and the company was consequently shattered. (Andersen once had twenty-eight thousand employees; it now has two hundred, whose job is to close down the business.) Tyco International, a conglomerate, has two executives who are now being tried on charges of forgiving millions in company loans to themselves and selling $575 million of Tyco stock, the price of which they kept artificially inflated. The CEO of HealthSouth Corporation, which handles medical matters in many places besides the South, is now on trial for fraud involving many millions. What all these sorry stories certify is that money, especially in alpine sums, is the greatest addictive drug. It provides the highest high, and it doesn't necessarily affect demeanor or social standing. In fact, the most chilling and frightening shots in Gibney's film are the close-ups of the urbane Lay and Skilling. (The one grossly mistaken shot is the opposite of urbane--the re-enactment of an Enron executive's suicide.)

Even before seeing this film, I had, like most others, been oppressed by the flood of fakeries that shivered this country. I wasn't unduly naive about fraud. My earliest newspaper reading included accounts of the Teapot Dome scandal in 1923; and fraud can hardly be called an American monopoly. (Just for two instances, remember the South Sea Bubble and Stavisky.) But the film reminded me of a tectonic flaw in this country that was perceived by Melville a century and a half ago. His novel The Confidence-Man is about a man who adopts various guises on a Mississippi steamer--an abstract of America entire--and swindles fellow passengers. R.W.B. Lewis wrote that "the Confidence Man is to some extent Melville's American embodiment of one of the most engaging of the great archetypal figures--the trickster god.… He was, to use modern terms, the god of gambling, and the deity of financial profit, the one involved in commercial dealings--particularly in shady ones.…"

When Melville saw this "American embodiment," he saw too that its medium was the creation of confidence. The steamer on which the swindles take place is called the Fidele. Gibney's well-knit, generally lucid documentary is about one more voyage on the Fidèle.

The screenplay of The Interpreter, assembled by a platoon of writers, is one of the breed that seem to disclose their assemblage as they go. First, someone suggested a thriller about a U.N. interpreter. Great! A woman. Greater! Now make her a translator of an obscure language. (The credits tell us that this language, an African dialect called Ku, was invented for the film.) This will explain why she was hired by the U.N. despite her flaky political background. Now for a threat. The president of the (fictitious) African country that speaks Ku is coming to address the General Assembly, and the Ku expert overhears some talk about assassinating him. Hey, now we can whip in a U.S. Secret Service agent--an attractive gent, of course. Links between the interpreter and the agent can develop against a background of official procedures and an exploration of the U.N. building. But how about character depths for the two leads? Well, let's give the woman a brother who is involved in the African troubles; and the agent gets a wife who ran away from him and was killed as she was on her way back to him--two weeks ago. Just in time to be of use to the screenwriters.

Onward. Hustle and threat and (incidental) killing can fill up the time until the African president arrives, throughout which there can be a contrast between the slipperiness of the plot and the solidity of the U.N. building where much of it takes place. (Darius Khondji's camera rendition of the building is impressive.) Then the president arrives, and--never mind the fact that the scene is a reminder of The Parallax View--the main trouble erupts. The interpreter can then behave in a way that is only sketchily related to the character we have seen, and it doesn't matter if the agent is reduced to relative inaction.

The director, Sydney Pollack, who appears briefly in the film, has done his experienced best with this Scotch-taped script. But his two stars are insuperable handicaps. Nicole Kidman, as the Ku lady, continues to float on the thinness of person and performance that apparently enraptures millions. Sean Penn, as the agent, shows that though he has some force in roles of stress and strain, he flounders when called on for romance. He has no charm. The last scene between the two stars, meant to tug our hearts, merely delays the finish.

This is the first film that the U.N. has permitted to be shot in its building. Better luck next time, U.N.

This article originally ran in the May 23, 2005 issue of the magazine.