Director Alex Gibney's new film, Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room, brings to life the faces behind the collapse of what was America's seventh-largest company come to life.
Along with showing Enron's rise and fall into bankruptcy, the movie-based on a book by Fortune magazine reporters Bethany McLean and Peter Elkind-has a strong focus on Portland and Portland General Electric, where investors and employees lost their life savings. Meanwhile, top Enron executives Ken Lay and Jeff Skilling, who go on trial in January on charges of fraud and conspiracy, cashed out with millions. WW talked with Gibney by phone about his movie, which opens Friday at Cinema 21.
WW: How could you tell an understandable story about a complex topic like Enron?
Alex Gibney: We had to find a way to simplify the story so that everybody could get it. But we had to be true enough to be able to say that we really told the story. Therein lies the rub. What we tried to do was focus on a few key characters and a few key transactions.
What were the primary differences between the book and movie?
The story in the book is vast, and we had to strip that down to tell a compelling, compact narrative. What the film can do...is to convey a very powerful visceral sense of what this place looked like, what these people were like.
How did Portland and PGE fit into Enron's larger scheme?
One, Enron buys PGE, and that helps them get into the electricity generation business, which becomes important as a backbone for their electricity trading business. Two, Portland is where the West Coast traders sat-the people who hatched the schemes for the California market. I found it amusing-though it has its tragic aspects-the dislike Portlanders have towards Californians who come up to Portland and increase the real-estate prices. And that resulted in the kind of sophomoric, frat-house atmosphere about screwing California.
What did you learn that surprised you the most?
How much people would emphasize what nice guys [Enron executives] were off the job. You have these people who are really nice guys off the job, but on the job they're killers. What does that say about our economic culture? That we've encouraged that, almost.
There's a scene in which PGE lineman Al Kaseweter matter-of-factly says he sold his entire retirement portfolio, worth $348,000 at its peak, for $1200. How many stories like that did you hear?
A lot. Here was a guy that didn't start with Enron; he started with PGE, a very steady utility. So he had a bedrock faith in his retirement plan, and the money he had set aside for the education of his children. When Enron took it over, the value of that portfolio went up, but it soon went crashing down. He entered the world of a casino, where it was no longer so safe. I don't think that was properly portrayed to the employees.
Why feature Portland Enron trader Colin Whitehead so prominently?
He reflects very honestly on the ethical dilemmas poised by working at Enron. When Colin says, "I didn't ask why," that's really the voice of every person. He's a kind of Everyman figure...who was attuned to the kind of anxiety that a place like Enron promotes.
Is there anything to prevent another Enron-like meltdown?
I wish I could say yes. Some rules and laws have been passed that I think will curb some of the excesses. But as we now see in the insurance-industry scandal...that's not stopping either.
You worked on the film The Trials of Henry Kissinger. Do you see any parallels between Kissinger and the Enron executives?
There's a lot of talk from Ken Lay's attorneys that he couldn't be responsible for what [Enron Chief Financial Officer] Andy Fastow was doing. Well, Kissinger didn't know how [Chilean General] Rene Schneider was going to be assassinated. He didn't want to know, and nobody was going to raise the issue with him. All Kissinger had to do was communicate his distaste for Schneider, and everybody else took care of the rest.
Do you think Ken Lay could emerge from this unscathed?
It's possible that either Skilling or Lay will be found innocent in January. There's a lot about The Great Gatsby in this story. But I think the stupidest thing F. Scott Fitzgerald ever said was "there are no second acts in American lives." I think there are only second acts in American lives. People are always coming up with ways to reinvent themselves. Ken Lay could do the same thing.
Cinema 21, 616 NW 21st Ave., 223-4515. 7 and 9 pm Friday-Sunday; also 2 pm Saturday-Sunday. See www.cinema21.com for Monday-Thursday showtimes. Ends May 12. $4-$7. Read David Walker's review on page 61.