"The Crooked E: The Unshredded Truth About Enron," though clunkily titled, enjoys an advantage over most network movies merely in concept: It's about something that really matters. That "something" is a massive, monstrous case of corporate corruption -- the kind of topic that conglomerate-owned commercial networks normally avoid.
Somehow, this sobering yet entertaining account of one of the most ruinous bankruptcies in the history of American private enterprise slipped through the cracks and made it onto CBS. And though hardly brilliant or inordinately clever, the script brings us face-to-face with the cold dark heart of the story: wanton, heedless greed.
The film, at 9 tomorrow night on Channel 9, documents a year at Enron -- roughly from April 1, 2001, to April 1, 2002 -- during which the heinous misdeeds of its highest-ranking executives came to light and its stock, as on-screen captions inform us, fell from $54.06 to about five bucks. Life's savings were lost, dreams were shattered and spirits were crushed -- but for the most part, not those of the upper echelon. As usual, it's the little people who suffer.
Based on a book by Enron expatriate Brian Cruver, "Crooked E" tells the story from the viewpoint of a young recruit who enters the Houston headquarters of Enron with wide eyes and high hopes and slowly gets a grip. Christian Kane, the personable young actor who plays Cruver, overdoes the innocence at first, brandishing a grisly Rob Morrow grin, but becomes more believable as the dominoes start to topple.
Shannon Elizabeth gives an impressive, first-rate performance as Cruver's wary, cautious wife-to-be, alarmed when her boyfriend radically notches up the lavishness of their lifestyle, even to the extreme of hiring a wedding planner to supervise their $400,000 nuptials.
The story wouldn't be worth telling in such detail, the movie makes clear, if it weren't emblematic of a wider regulatory permissiveness -- which the movie implies was largely the work of the Reagan and first Bush administrations -- that allowed corporate pirates to run riot. Corporate rights suddenly superseded the public interest, and the fat cats feasted.
Brian Dennehy, who makes the most of a relatively small amount of screen time as a defrocked Enron executive named Jack Blue, lays it all out in a speech near the end of the film that recalls Ned Beatty's famous harangue in the 1976 film "Network." It's an epiphany forced on Cruver, just as Beatty's was on Peter Finch as Howard Beale.
"There are hundreds of Enrons out there -- thousands," Dennehy says grimly as he wanders the cold corridors of his cavernous Texas mansion. He was excommunicated from the executive ranks, he says, because "I broke the Enron rule: No bad news. No bad news, ever." The philosophy had been "keep the lie going, and the bonuses and stock options will keep coming." The stock price was inflated by underreporting mountainous debt and over-reporting illusory profits and what were almost whimsically called "virtual assets."
Mike Farrell plays Enron CEO Kenneth Lay (who later assumes the role of chairman as well), seen almost entirely in official settings giving closed-circuit pep talks to employees via the company TV system. Some of the ironies are achingly outrageous: Lay hails the firm's "integrity," its "absolute honesty and fairness," and declares: "We play by the rules and stand by our work. That's the Enron way." Later he has the gall to extol "Enron's deep commitment to full disclosure." That's before the paper shredders start cranking full-tilt, of course.
As the stock sinks slowly in the East, Lay pastes on a happy puss and tells workers, "Our growth has never been more certain." The only nests being feathered, of course, are those of top management. Employees are urged to buy more stock even as the executives are quietly unloading theirs.
The film's director, Penelope Spheeris, is an eclectic Jill-of-all-trades whose movies have run a fairly goofy gamut. Her approach to the material is hardly inspired, but there's evidence she had an emotional investment in making the tale accessible to as wide an audience as possible. One is tempted to say that a better movie would probably have resulted if the film had been made by HBO instead of CBS, but HBO had already made "Barbarians at the Gate," a movie that makes a somewhat similar statement, and it's reassuring that CBS programmers had the guts to do it.
"Crooked E" is unlikely to lure a gigantic audience in network terms; there are so many cheery escapist alternatives on all those other channels. A kind of almost-happy ending is cobbled together, but nobody goes so far as to make any assurances that something this heinous could never happen again.
If CBS had great faith in the film, programmers would have scheduled it during next month's ratings sweeps period -- or aired it as originally planned last November -- not in the frozen wastes of January. But at least it's going to air, and those who do tune in will find the tragedy and its disquieting ramifications made hideously immediate. Yes, it all really happened, right here in the good old U.S.A., and not very long ago. And the movie reminds us that even those who didn't lose a nickel as a direct result of the scandal were among its victims just the same.