Ask Why: The Cinematic Evil of Star Wars and Enron

This article was published in Nathan Jr. - June 2005 issue (email nathanjrzine@hotmail.com for a subscription). Only fate and anger could conspire an article such as this. I was going to write a review of Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room for May's issue, but I couldn't get it in before the deadline. As this month's issue had a Star Wars theme, I decided to integrate the Enron element into an article about Star Wars, an essay and review in one, further intensifying any remaining anger about my mom losing her 401k in the scandal. Predictably, the end result is me digressing to all-out rant by the end of the article, but hey, when you mess with my mom...

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Ask Why: The Cinematic Evil of Star Wars and Enron


There is no more disappointing evil than cinematic evil. Whether personal (revenge), power-hungry (taking over the world), or just plain greedy, antagonist motives always fail to rise to the occasion. Since audiences begin watching a film with the assumption that all that is bad will eventually be defeated (or at least remain harmlessly ambiguous), the villain is fated to squander his full potential and sell the worst part of his soul to the good guys. Too often I stare into his eyes and think, “This is all you got?” with almost 98% confidence that it won’t be enough to prevail.

That’s why I have to hand it to George Lucas and his Star Wars trilogy. Only in a galaxy far, far away can evil finally get…well, evil. Turning to the Dark Side, I pay my respects to Darth Vader, arguably the best evil character film has ever seen. Hell bent on taking his compassionate Jedi impulses to ruthless extremes, his actions speak louder than reason, because where is the reason in mind-strangling your own henchmen, lusting for an overabundance of power, and plotting to turn your own kin to the Dark Side? Why would you abandon a promising prophecy within the righteous Jedi order in favor of getting played like a crooked, haunted knight in Chancellor/Emperor Pallaptine’s miserable galactic chess match?

I ask why because far beneath Darth Vader’s hatred and darkness, there’s undeniable humanity, a moral compass spun terribly out of control. In Star Wars Episode III: Revenge of the Sith, Anakin Skywalker’s immature vulnerabilities—the combination of too much power and weak resolve—allow the ideological puppet-master Emperor to blacken his mind. By the movie’s end, he has become the villain we love to fear, a frustrated dark robot sergeant in an endless Aryan droid parade. Consumed by grand delusions of getting rich off galaxy domination, his evil powers have eroded any selfless bone in whatever remains of his charred body. But no matter how quick and profound his transition to the Dark Side, Darth Vader is still doomed by our expectations. By way of The New Hope, the Empire Strikes Back only to usher the Return of the Jedi. When the final frame fades on the Star Wars saga, good has ultimately defeated one of the most daunting manifestations of film evil.

Before I start damning Hannibal Lecter and Chucky to the ferocity of C-3PO, I suppose I should throw film evil a bone. Maybe Darth Vader and his doomed antagonist community are not the problem—maybe I’m the problem. Maybe fictional film evil is so disappointing to me because I just saw the real thing on the big screen in the recently released documentary Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room. After watching the once high-flying, now bankrupt Houston-based energy company elusively manipulate America out of billions of dollars, I feel like we could all take on Darth Vader—without lightsabers.

Enron is not just a documentary for affluent left-wing zealots prepared to denounce capitalism and go live on an anarchist commune. Filmmaker Alex Gibney has used his excellent source material, the book of the same title by Bethany McLean and Peter Elkind, to provide an accessible, easy-to-understand probe into a crime that was previously very inaccessible and difficult to understand. Like any slanted documentary with the premise that Corporate America is a vampire sucking the life out of the American Dream, Enron’s ultimate intent is to make you genuinely angry and disturbed.

After watching the final Enron chapter torment my good conscience, I walked out of the theater into the same world that allowed this corporation to get away with a greedy, malicious attack from within America’s free market ideology, victimizing average Americans. Enron’s internal catch phrase, blatantly typed beneath its lopsided E logo, reads “Ask Why.” Knowing what we know now from Congressional and journalistic attempts to answer this question, it reads like an open mockery. In Enron, Gibney takes this question seriously, portraying the mysterious, elusive evil in Enron by introducing us to the Smartest Guys in the Room.

As fast as I can wonder “Who’s Darth Vader?” in the Enron scenario, the documentary gets up close and personal with several evil men in a boardroom plotting to dupe the stock market, sabotage employee 401ks, and reap the benefits the California energy crisis, buying private jets and donating six figures to President Bush’s reelection club in their spare time. However, dwelling upon the empty morality of top suits Kenneth Lay and Jeffrey Skilling would be disregarding the economic and political structures that allowed them to get away with this fraud in the first place.

Just like Anakin Skywalker wouldn’t have turned to the Dark Side without the influence of the Emperor, Lay and Skilling didn’t act alone, not without the all-too-plentiful opportunities for deception. Beginning in the 1980s, pro-business deregulation policy (ala Ronald Reagan: “The government is not the solution; the government is the problem.”) allowed outfits like Enron more power and less accountability. Unlike the government, the corporation claims no greater social responsibility, only serving the flow of capital. Deregulation opened the door for Enron’s deceptive practice of mark-to-market accounting. Imagine a movie business where studios could balance the books and reap investments under the assumption that next weekend’s theatrical release would bank $300 million (or hell, $500 million), and you can get an idea of how Enron’s mark-to-market accounting boosted fooled capitalists everywhere while its actual profits plummeted into the bankruptcy abyss.

What I found most disturbing about Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room was that it presents the scandal as a deceptive piece of fiction written by master capitalists, using the force for their own selfish interests to produce the screenplay in real time. Transferring energy into finance, promoting the illusion of profit, Enron won the confidence of market analysts and investors, flying high on stock prices that never seemed to go anywhere but up. When the company suddenly evaporated, nobody could believe what had happened. At the heart of the Enron scandal there is a chilling sense of irresponsibility, a place where people can’t tell the difference between fiction and fraud.

In the documentary’s most profoundly upsetting example of fictional fraud, the California Energy Crisis of 2001 plays out like nightmarish video game, with sick and twisted Enron at the controls, racking insane profit and costing the state billions. While we see news footage of widespread panic, we hear incriminating audio evidence of Enron’s most successful and morally devoid powerbrokers buying and selling electricity at trumped-up prices, producing the blackouts and fires from the comfort of a headset, making jarring comments like, “Burn baby, burn,” as more flames generate more money. For lack of more abrasive description, Enron brutally rapes the state of California in dark, fiery alley, and the documentary makes us watch. We long to look the other way, but it’s too fiction for reality. Surely it couldn’t have happened like this. But as Enron reminds us, the deregulation of California’s power industry lead to Enron taking advantage, creating crises that leveraged Gray Davis’ recall, which paved the way for the end of Arnold Schwarzenegger’s acting career as we know it.

As any textbook Screenwriting 101 course will teach you, evil is created onscreen so that it may be defeated. Revenge of the Sith makes it clear that Anakin Skywalker is doomed to his Darth Vader fate, defenseless against the forces of the Dark Side. Luke, Han, and the Jedi Rebel Gang ultimately conquer this elusive evil and restore the Republic, but unfortunately, the conclusion of Enron leaves us helpless and in the dark. Putting the comprehensive facts and figures into perspective, the scandal was a destructive attack on our own soil, annihilating jobs, sparking a recession, and devaluing hard-earned investments. The perpetrators were American citizens that took the pursuit of happiness way above the law. We long for a cinematic ending where illusionary corporate evil is guaranteed defeat and robbers are brought to justice, but the Enron quagmire offers no easy solution. If the Smartest Guys in the Room did direct the Enron scandal, then the rest of us have got a lot to learn. It’s about time we ask why changes can’t be made to prevent a potential sequel from being greenlit, over-budgeted, and on its way to screw us over again.

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