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Debra Goldman's Consumer Republic

  • February 18, 2002, 12:00 AM EST
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After months of dominating newspaper front pages and evening news broadcasts, the Enron story is reaching the next level of media saturation. A flurry of six- and seven-figure book deals have been inked in the past couple of weeks, including Penguin Putnam's $1.4 million advance to the Fortune magazine team of Bethany McLean (the journalist who dissed Enron before dissing Enron was cool), Peter Elkind and editor Joseph Nocera. It is comforting to know that someone besides Andrew Fastow has made money off the Enron debacle.

Hollywood, meantime, isn't waiting for any of these books to be written to turn Enron into a movie. The cable channel FX and Artisan Television earlier this month un veiled their plan to bring accounting irregularities directly to the small screen. The project does not have a writer or director. Its makers do not yet know the story—who did what, when—because no one knows the story yet, what with all the Fifth Amendment pleas and shredded documents. And they certainly don't have an ending. They do have a consultant in Lowell Bergman, the former 60 Minutes producer played by Al Pacino in The Insider.

Despite Americans' professed faith in private enterprise—a faith that is waning, according to polls—they are suckers for sagas of corporate malfeasance. They are more than ready to believe that businesspeople are capable of every kind of venal wickedness, and they love to witness their comeuppance. Artisan CEO Robert Cooper, who helped bring And the Band Played On and Barbarians at the Gate to television when he was president of HBO Pictures, naturally has great faith in the political- and business-thriller genre.

Yet to succeed as movies, such stories need an easily graspable incident, or a hero in whose personal fate viewers can get involved. All the President's Men had a burglary and crusading journalists. Erin Brockovich had a plucky eponymous heroine in a push-up bra. The Insider had a sad-sack whistle-blower and yet another crusading journalist. Barbarians at the Gate was about a take over battle, a conflict one doesn't need an MBA to comprehend. Although ostensibly a drama about business, its moral was that business is not the least bit businesslike, but rather an irrational game of ego and power.

Everyone can understand ego and power. Not everyone can understand energy deregulation, off-balance-sheet debt and broadband trading. We can assume the people at FX and Artisan know this, and thus the Enron movie will be a story about ego and power, with individual villains, heroes and victims.

There is sure to be some composite hardworking, loyal employee whose life and home and dreams we will come to know, and whose ruin at the hands of Enron's stewards will move us. The obvious heroine in a tale with almost no heroics is memo-writing Sherron Watkins, presumably not in a push-up bra. And I can imagine all the mustachio-twirling by the Snidely Whiplash trio—compulsive crony Kenneth Lay, type A Jeffrey Skilling and Fastow, the ethically challenged financial whiz—who bring down a mighty corporation through blind ambition and failures of character.

I have no doubt there are more than enough personal foibles and tragedies in the Enron story to fill several hours of prime time. But if ever there were a scandal that is less about the flaws of individuals and more about the system at large, Enron is it. It is the Roots of corrupt business sagas.

Unlike the tale told in Barbarians, Enron really is about business: how it is practiced, how the rules are made, how the score is kept, who supplies the money. The scandal is not that a few high-flying corporate honchos over-reached, but that most of their venal maneuverings were perfectly legal. Explain that to a TV audience in four hours.

Nevertheless, a few scenes in this otherwise abstract drama beg to be brought to life. The famous episode of the ringers on the trading floor, recruited to look busy while analysts passed through, is priceless, more suited to a satire than a docu-drama.

And who will the producers get to play the phalanx of senators and representatives who now vie for airtime to show how shocked, shocked they are by Enron executives' behavior? It would take an actor the caliber of Gene Hackman, who has already played a murderous senator and a homicidal president, to convey the grandstanding hypocrisy of these enablers-turned-prosecutors.

On second thought, maybe the producers could leave that part out. Seeing such a spectacle once is more than enough.