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Four years after the disintegration of his company, former Enron chairman and CEO Ken Lay has finally gone on trial in Houston. The case will be carefully watched by both the media and large numbers of ex-Enron workers, thousands of whom were fired after the discovery of massive corruption at the highest levels of their company. How and why this corporate catastrophe took place is examined in a timely new documentary, The Fall of Enron, Thursday at 10 p.m. on YES Docu.
A joint effort by French and American production companies, The Fall of Enron maintains a surprisingly dispassionate tone given the scandalous behavior it documents. The multinational energy conglomerate's declaration of bankruptcy in December 2001 unleashed a typhoon of outrage and disgust across the United States, but filmmakers resist the urge simply to vilify Lay and his corrupt colleagues, 15 of whom have already pleaded guilty to various charges relating to the scandal.
Opportunities to pile on the scorn are plentiful, but the filmmakers' restraint works to the great benefit of their documentary. They instead invest their energy in documenting the company's dramatic rise and astonishing fall with old news footage and interviews with former employees. There's no need to sensationalize here: through taped phone conversations and now-discredited public statements, Lay and his colleagues damn themselves.
And they have a lot to answer for. As The Fall of Enron recalls in its brisk introduction, $70 billion vanished from the American economy almost overnight, with the bulk of the loss borne by innocent workers and the legions of investors duped by the mammoth energy company. Four thousand workers were fired in the immediate aftermath of the collapse, while thousands more would lose their entire life savings. "I didn't have security," one worker comments ruefully to the camera. "I just thought I did."
Once the seventh largest American corporation, Enron's implosion sent shock waves across the United States. The discovery of executives' seemingly boundless greed led to a short but serious crisis of confidence in the entire American economy, and The Fall of Enron is at its most compelling when it documents the damage control efforts of both President Bush and Vice President Cheney, themselves former executives in the oil industry.
Undermining their efforts, of course, was the close connection shared between Enron officers and the White House itself. President Bush and Chairman Lay had been close personal friends for over two decades at the time of Enron's bankruptcy filing, the film notes, and Bush had even bestowed on Lay one of his characteristic monikers - "Kenny Boy" - during better days.
The Fall of Enron is too pointedly neutral to make direct accusations, but its history of the president's personal, political and financial relationship with Lay - aided by plenty of footage of the twosome together - raises obvious questions about what the White House knew, and when. A clip of a speech in which Bush distances himself from Lay feels eerily reminiscent of Bill Clinton's infamous denial about not having had sexual relations with "that woman."
While it occasionally borders on innuendo, much of the documentary is instead devoted to deconstructing the various scams used by Enron higher-ups to defraud employees, investors and even the Indian government, which put forward a large percentage of the $4 billion demanded by Enron to build an environmentally catastrophic electrical plant south of Bombay which, incidentally, never produced a kilowatt of energy. By the end, company officials were paying the Arthur Andersen accounting firm a million dollars a week to cover up their dishonest financial practices, while California taxpayers were bilked of billions of additional dollars as the result of statewide power shortages created by Enron in the summer of 2001. A taped telephone conversation records executives laughing about the schemes.
There's obviously a lot to be angry about, but The Fall of Enron never stoops to the demagoguery of Lay himself, who's shown not long after September 11 describing investigations of his company as terrorism. Former Enron vice president Sharon Watkins does her part to renew viewers' faith in simple human decency when she recalls the dismay and eventual outrage that led her to blow the whistle on her superiors.
Though justice may be disbursed in the case of Enron itself, Watkins warns that wider systemic changes have been "nothing but a show" so far. Further reforms will improve the situation, the film suggests, but on some level corruption's greatest accomplice may be human nature itself.
"Money buys people," a former Merrill Lynch analyst notes dryly. "And a lot of money buys a lot of people."
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