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7/10
Stylish but Soft-Hitting
9 August 2007
"Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room" is suave and well-crafted, but betrays some wishful thinking and apologist tendencies.

Some ex-Enron workers venture poetic but unmerited speculations about their corrupter associates, conjuring hypothetical images of their former friends now reflecting back on their transgressions and experiencing ethical remorse. We are subjected to clichés about their having to face their own "shadows" and whatnot, all of it speculative, and in spite of any evidence that they ever experienced a moral twinge or regretted anything other than getting caught.

There's also an insidious "slippery slope" message, some philosophical waxing upon the blurriness of ethical lines, and depictions of compulsive personalities, all of which introduce unwarranted moral ambiguity. Bethany McLean, one of the investigative journalists, surprisingly lays overmuch of the blame on Andrew Fastow, declaring that the fraud started with him (!) even though Fastow is elsewhere shown to have been recruited into a company already corrupt from the top down. There is some subtle attempt at containment here. This film skewers the culprits one moment, but then shrinks from the implications.

The WORST example is a naive question given undue emphasis by being left "provocatively" open-ended. The narrator, Peter Coyote, asks, "What motivated the corrupt traders? Was it their million dollar bonuses? Or was it docile complicity?" (I'm paraphrasing here) A no-brainer answer you might think, but then - I kid you not - the documentary suggests the second possibility and launches into the fascinating but entirely irrelevant Milgram experiment, in which reluctant subjects are persuaded by an authority figure to voluntarily electrocute others. But Enron traders were a uniformly sanguine lot, evidenced by testimonials and taped conversations displaying naked greed and delight (generous clips of which are included in the documentary). Yet we are supposed to imagine they were the victims of obedience training?

It's a bit much...

Maybe two or three of the commentators don't pussyfoot around, and through them "The Smartest Guys" successfully conveys the perils of the free market and deregulation; but these lessons get watered down by wistful undertones and feigned ambiguity. Post-Enron, the communist charge that capitalists are "cannibals" now seems undeniably apt. Yet we forever flatter ourselves, rehearsing the cant of the free market ideology, according to which the profit motive encourages 1) innovation and 2) hard work. Granted. But what the pundits and economists invariably overlook is that the profit motive also encourages 3) robbery. Adam Smith's *other* "invisible hand," if you will ...hidden behind the back and gripping a knife! Enron calls for an inquiry into the nature of capitalism, not an explanation based upon specific personalities. Human nature is what it is, and there will always be people ready and willing to cut throats when given motivation and opportunity. To misquote the NRA: People don't kill people.. incentives do.

Final criticism: a bit of shabby hypocrisy. One of the Enron execs is portrayed as having sleazy encounters with strippers; the viewer is then dutifully treated to lots of footage of nude strippers... ha!
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8/10
Postmodern yet powerful
19 January 2007
A unique combination of a western and an existentialist black comedy.

The two foils are Kirk Douglas as a cunning and charming prisoner, and Henry Fonda as his steady and observant warden. They match wits within a teeming ecology of interesting characters. Burgess Meredith is the heart of the ensemble and provides several poignant moments: the bath scene and his reaction to a shooting are unforgettable.

You'll either hate or love the way "A Crooked Man" subverts the conventions of the genre. The tone of the movie is purposefully inconsistent. One moment, it's sympathetic and moving. The next it's cold and nihilistic. The humor is particularly unique for how it brings slapstick and abstraction together. Consider the way Ah-ping meets his end, or the film's obvious disingenuous portrayal of the schoolteacher's fate. Behind these profoundly idiotic scenes is something profound. One caveat: a pointless and homophobic subplot mars this otherwise perfect film.

"A Crooked Man" will be a real treat for those who like films that leave the well-beaten path.
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