Your movie reviewer has been reading Colin MacCabe’s excellent book on Jean-Luc Godard and pondering its discussion of France after World War II. As MacCabe describes it, this was a time when a loose, intergenerational group of writers, teachers, artists and bohos could decide that political change lay down the road of cultural criticism–in particular, criticism of the popular art of film.
The contemporary American mind recoils in disbelief. In a society that is now thoroughly dominated by political niche-marketing and teledigitized mendacity, we strain to hope, like the old Cahiers du Cinéma crowd, that film might still be made to seize the world and change it. Granted, Godard carries on, despite everything. His later films and videos are both a meditation on the ultimate failure of the Cahiers project and an audacious continuation of the struggle. Yet the idiosyncrasy of his work, which once made it a model for younger artists and critics, today serves only to mark how far we’ve been pushed from the goal.
I lay these thoughts before you not to call down gloom but to introduce three current films that do try to change the world, or at least incite the kind of discussion that promises change. One is a pretty good example of the liberal exposé à la mode. (Why not a left-wing exposé? We’ll get to that.) The second is a version of the now ubiquitous my-personal-journey video, though distinguished by a superior level of intelligence, honesty and political sophistication. The third is an ostentatiously whacked-out, button-pushing fiction, which some viewers will see as a counsel of despair. To me, it represents one possible way forward.
Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room provides the useful service of walking you through the biggest business-political scandal of a very young century. Although the film will probably make few converts–again, that problem of niche-marketing–it will at least invigorate an existing constituency against the next depredation, while allowing them the small victory of mocking the perpetrators of the last.
Writer-director Alex Gibney cracks all the standard jokes of the modern activist documentarian–tossing in an ironic snatch of pop music here, a patch of funky old horror movie there–to liven up his mix of talking-head interviews and C-SPAN footage. As he perhaps realizes, his gags are not half as boffo as those of the acknowledged trendsetter, Michael Moore. (I note that Gibney wisely refrains from attempting any of Moore’s performance art.) That said, Enron does exhibit some of Moore’s flair for digging up astounding footage–such as an in-house promotional video in which Enron’s Jeffrey Skilling both spoofed and celebrated his dubious accounting practices. (“We call it HFV,” he chortled. “Hypothetical Future Value trading!”) Gibney also deserves credit for tracing a clear line through Enron’s tangled history, a task in which he is greatly helped by his reliance on the book The Smartest Guys in the Room, by Peter Elkind and Bethany McLean.
But he is also hurt by these two Fortune magazine writers, whose on-camera comments frame the discussion in personal terms. At the beginning of the film, McLean says the Enron story is “really a human tragedy.” At the end, she claims it was about strayed idealists: “people who thought they were changing the world” by agitating for completely unregulated markets. In between, Enron worries over the question of whether Kenneth Lay and Jeffrey Skilling truly meant to perpetrate an enormous fraud or were drawn by slow degrees into criminality through the dark forces of peer pressure and intellectual pride. You might as well ask whether Al Capone expected to harm anyone when he set out to rule the bootleggers. As an organizing theme for political inquiry, the film’s key question is meaningless (and is sometimes exposed as such by material that Gibney himself dredges up). As a subject for fleshing out, the question sets Gibney up for failure. He never gets within a mile of Lay’s or Skilling’s personality.