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Buy 'Anatomy of Greed,' the book on which 'The Crooked E' TV-movie is based.

Buy 'Pigs at the Trough' by Arianna Huffington.

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Passing the Buck: Mr. Blue (Brian Dennehy) spills the financial bean counters to Brian Cruver (Christian Kane) in "The Crooked E.'

Enron's Scarlet Letter

The TV docudrama 'The Crooked E' spreads the blame for Enron's collapse too thin, but makes its points at the margins

By Michael S. Gant

ONE GOOD joke enlivens The Crooked E, the otherwise flat-footed TV docudrama about the fall of Enron. "What's the difference between California and the Titanic?" "At least the lights were still on when the Titanic went down!"

As the good ship California careers into the vortex of a $34 billion deficit, the jest rattles like dry bones in an ossuary. Enron energy traders fleeced California consumers; the top management, from Kenneth Lay, Jeffrey Skilling and Andrew Fastow on down, engorged themselves like Roman debauchers; and then the whole operation bellied up faster than a neglected gold fish.

The Crooked E, broadcast Jan. 5 on CBS, purports to reveal the financial legerdemain behind the implosion. Based loosely on the recent tell-all Anatomy of Greed: The Unshredded Truth From an Enron Insider by Brian Cruver, the movie tracks the author's short run in 2001 at Enron's Houston headquarters, working in a boiler room telemarketing "bankruptcy insurance."

Cruver (played by Christian Kane, the smarmy lawyer from TV's Angel) is depicted as a callow but essentially innocent business-school grad easily seduced by Enron's "damn the debt and full speed ahead" tactics. Blinded by promises of multimillion-dollar bonuses, Cruver lets loose the reins of his conscience, only to recover his soul at the end.

As an economic primer, The Crooked E is about as useful a Nigerian scam email. Company bigwigs bedazzle the troops with talk of "virtual assets," but it doesn't help that director Penelope Spheeris admits defeat herself. When Cruver tries to tell his in-laws what he does, he confesses, "It's too difficult to explain."

Perhaps sensing that audiences prefer the titillation of exposé to the tedium of exposition, the movie sweetens the financial medicine with the revelation that Enron liked to hire ex-strippers for its secretarial pool (seriously--who wouldn't?). After the collapse, one employee shamefacedly pulls down her blouse to show the tattooed "E" on her left breast--the Scarlet Letter of a new millennium.

The film's highlight is a speech delivered by an Enron higher-up named Mr. Blue (a composite character, played by Brian Dennehy). Mr. Blue tells a shocked Cruver who's to blame. His list ranges widely: bankers, brokerage houses, auditors, politicians, financial analysts. It wasn't just "irrational exuberance," he rails, "it was goddamn greed." Mr. Blue even uses the Vietnam-era phrase "the best and the brightest" in his rant, a detour that conflates corporate greed with geopolitical hubris.

Who could disagree, except perhaps Wall Street's Gordon Gekko? But by spreading the blame so far and wide, The Crooked E also manages to avoid fingering any individual or institution that viewers could actually take action against. If everyone is guilty, then no one is really guilty. Well, almost no one. Fastow has been indicted, although Lay and Shilling have not yet.

So, The Crooked E hardly qualifies as a trenchant call to economic arms; even Oliver Stone wasn't really sure what to do about the Gordon Gekkos of the world. And yet The Crooked E blipped on somebody's radar, because CBS hastily shifted its original air date from Nov. 3, just two days before the fall election, to Jan. 5. According to a Washington Post report, the network never offered an explanation to Spheeris and producer Robert Greenwald for the move. It may have been fear of action by Lay's attorneys or squeamishness over Enron's connections to the Bush White House.

Subversiveness in American pop culture can usually be discerned only around the edges, buried in the background radiation of transitory images and throwaway lines. That's especially true in cheesy quickies like The Crooked E. During a flashback, a young Cruver overhears Mr. Blue extolling the possibilities of another unfettered era: the days of the Reagan tax cut. "This is America. If something is worth taking, then take it!"

Cruver is indoctrinated with chirpy in-house commercials promoting the Enron way. In one nasty segue, Lay (Mike Farrell of TV's M*A*S*H) assures the troops that all is well; a moment later, Lay's on the phone ordering his broker to sell Enron stock. In another of his regular pep talks, Lay brandishes a big portrait of the Arthur Andersen accountants as proof that Enron's innovations will be carefully scrutinized; later, we catch a glimpse of the Andersen team passing the time by shooting baskets with wadded-up pieces of paper.

Most telling, if most fleeting, are the offhand references to trips by top management to Washington to meet with the vice president and some background photos of President Bush.

The made-for-TV movie is a frail vessel for populist agitation when it comes to boardroom crimes. A useful companion to bolster The Crooked E's feints at significance is Arianna Huffington's new book, Pigs at the Trough (Crown Publishers), which includes some damning pages about Enron, especially its use of campaign donations to gain regulatory advantages. Enron and its upper echelon contributed $2.4 million to candidates at the federal levels in 2000, for instance. According to Huffington, Enron representatives met half a dozen times with Vice President Dick Cheney to discuss the Energy Task Force. Those are the meetings that the White House has been fighting to keep a secret. Now, that would make a movie.


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From the January 16-22, 2003 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

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