By Craig Leask
Throughout history corruption has been a major motivating factor in governments, corporations and pretty much any organization that involves money and or power. Historically these acts of corruption have been geographically contained and only negatively affecting the local town, city or region. With globalization, that’s no longer the case. These acts of greed now directly affect the people and the economies of entire countries, even the world.
There have been numerous biographical films and TV movies about political figures: JFK (1991), George Wallace (1997), W (2008) Lincoln (2012), Oliver Stone’s Nixon (1995) and Ron Howard’s Frost/Nixon (2008) to name but a few, as well as countless fictional depictions of political events and characters: Mr. Smith Goes To Washington (1939), The Manchurian Candidate (1962), Dr. Strangelove (1964) and Margin Call (2011). These films explore political and corporate corruption in an age of skepticism and investigative journalism. History has taught us that “absolute power corrupts absolutely”.
For the purpose of this series of articles, I wanted to investigate films that explore and expose the stories behind true political and corporate corruption, as well as stories of the little guys who tried to step up and make a difference. These films outline the various steps (and missteps) surrounding crisis, wars and, in the present case, pandemics. It is very interesting when you start to see the connection between corporate corruption and politics, as the two often go hand in hand.
As with many art forms, filmmaking is an opportunity to express your own opinions and concerns as well as to highlight, protest and document these wrongdoings for future generations. There is no doubt there are many movies and documentaries in the works now (or will be shortly) about many of the worlds atrocities, decision-making processes, corruption and handling of crisis and pandemics – all of which will undoubtedly leave their mark on the world for years to come.
This is the first in a series of articles, each focusing on fact based events and the people and personalities behind them.
PART ONE: CORPORATE
Enron: The Smartest Guys in The Room (2005)
Based on the 2003 Bethany McLean and Peter Elkind best-selling book of the same name, Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room is a documentary on the largest business scandal in American history. Directed by Andy Gibney, the film chronologically outlines the complex rise and fall of Enron, which started out as a moderate-sized Houston gas-pipeline company and grew rapidly into the American energy company named by Fortune Magazine as “America’s Most Innovative Company” for six consecutive years, employing some 22,000 people and reaping annual revenues of $100 billion. Enron plummeted from the seventh largest U.S. company to complete and utter bankruptcy in less than a year. The 2001 bankruptcy proceedings and Congressional hearings into the company’s vicious acts revealed numerous crimes and scandals, resulting in employees losing pensions and life savings, and investors losing over $11 billion.
The Enron story had it all – unbridled corporate greed, conflicts of interest, dummy corporations and shell companies, money laundering, creative accounting, nonexistent funds, hidden losses, embezzlement, imaginary profits and even suicide. This true corporate morality story and its practices had all been sanctioned by accounting firm Arthur Anderson and many secure and stable banks who had even invested client money into their fictitious products.
Enron’s stability was based on more than just fraudulent business practices and the use of illegal mark-to-market accounting. Director Alex Gibney, using interviews and news clips, aptly lays out the despicable and moralistic lows the management team at Enron was willing to go in the pursuit of profits.
The documentary explores Enron’s exploitation of California’s newly deregulated and relatively unstable electricity market creating the appearance of congestion on the state’s power grid, resulting in California declaring a Stage 2 Emergency. Enron then arranged for the state to pay them to relieve the congestion at a greatly inflated price. Essentially Enron was paid for moving energy to relieve congestion without actually moving any energy or relieving any congestion. The film also explores the strong political connections Ken Lay and Enron had with President George H. W. Bush and his son, President George W. Bush. It explores the connections that were purchased through contributions made by Enron’s founder, CEO and Chairman Kenny Lay, to the Bush family’s presidential aspirations. The Bush’s also had good reason to support Enron, as its actions in creating the California energy crisis assisted in the political sabotage of then California governor Gray Davis, a strong challenger to George W. Bush in the 2004 Presidential election. These actions indirectly led to the recall of Davis in 2003 which ended his political career. Enron would make $2 billion off the California crisis which caused numerous expensive business disruptions and multiple deaths by heat stroke and powerless life support machines.
The film won the Independent Spirit Award for Best Documentary Feature and Best Documentary Screenplay from the Writers Guild of America. It was also nominated for Best Documentary Feature at the 78th Academy Awards in 2006.
The Wizard of Lies (2017)
The Wizard of Lies is an American made for television film directed by Barry Levinson and based on the non-fiction book The Wizard of Lies: Bernie Madoff and the Death of Trust by Diana B. Henriques. The film stars Robert De Niro as Bernard Madoff and Michelle Pfeiffer as his wife Ruth and follows the rise and fall of the largest Ponzi scheme in history. The HBO film aired on May 20, 2017.
As unbelievable as it may seem, The Wizard of Lies is a dramatization of events which actually occurred. It follows the story of Bernard Madoff, founder and CEO of Bernard L. Madoff Investment Securities LLC, as well as the former chairman of NASDAQ. Bernie (to his friends) started his firm in 1960 with $5,000, initially focusing on penny stock trades and eventually turning his company into the largest dealer in NYSE-listed stocks in the U.S. Unbeknownst to his many wealthy investors, national regulators, creditors and banks, the wealth management component of his many faceted company was nothing more than an elaborate, multi-billion-dollar Ponzi scheme. A pyramid scheme worth an estimated $64.8 billion in fraudulent funds.
The primary offence committed by Bernie Madoff is straightforward and simple – all reported returns on investments (ROIs) were entirely fictitious. In true pyramidal fashion, existing investors in Madoff’s funds were paid out with money invested by succeeding investors. The consequences would not have been nearly as severe had the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) done their job. Madoff, having been the Chairman of NASDAQ, knew exactly what was required as a regulated entity and, as such, he also knew what regulators would look for in an audit. When it came to his Ponzi scheme, he simply made sure that they saw what they would be looking for. Madoff designed his deceptions with the eye of a regulator or an auditor, which he learned during his time with NASDAQ. Throughout the film, the SEC comes across as less then competent, either only seeing what they want to see or being completely blinded by the perceived stability of Madoff’s firm.
Madoff’s scheme was different – instead of exploiting investors’ greed, Bernie played up to their volatility. He used the perceived consistency of stable profits to appease their fear of losing what they have. Investors were convinced by Bernie to forgo potentially greater returns with well-known and prominent mutual funds, for the security and consistency of his time proven returns.
The Wizard of Lies is not a documentary as much as it is a character portrayal of the patriarchal Madoff family, their ignorant bliss in not knowing the precarious and unstable basis of the family fortune and their idealistic lifestyle. The film does well at explaining how the domineering Bernie protected his lies and fraudulent business practices from his two sons, who were also in the family business, and from his wife who was happy in her own well financed bliss. As well, the film aptly shows Bernie as a true sociopath and how easily he was able to compartmentalize his unethical behavior, blaming his victims for their gullibility, feeling no guilt or responsibility in his own actions.
Director Barry Levinson and his writers smartly develop the plot with the point of view that Bernie’s wife Ruth, as well as his children, are completely unaware of his business practices. This in itself would seem unbelievable had it not been for Robert De Niro’s brilliant portrayal of the emotionally barren family patriarch – De Niro plays him with a complete absence of apathy and morality. The Wizard of Lies presents Madoff’s inexcusable and deliberate acts in cold and unfiltered honesty – allowing the facts and actions to speak for themselves.
From as far back as Craig can remember he has been passionate about architecture and the atmosphere that can be created through a well-designed building. In movies, he fulfills this passion by gravitating to films where the production infuses the location into the plot as one of the characters. Be it the long dark shadows of mysteries and haunted house films, to classics of the 40’s and 50’s set in big old houses, grand Italian plazas, or remote villages. It’s the locations Craig is drawn to, so much so that, on occasion, he has even been accused of overlooking plot failures and weak directing, having been so engrossed in the set design and location. What he hopes to accomplish with his writing is to share this passion and encourage others to see for the first time – or revisit – movies where the architecture plays as pivotal a role as a character in the plot.