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Enron: From Crime Time To Prime Time

When new Enron employee Brian Cruver drives into the company parking garage, he's greeted by a gung-ho electronic sign: "Enron is bold ... bold ... bold."

When he leaves eight months later, laid off along with thousands of co-workers after the company's bankruptcy filing, he sees a message of bitterness. "Enron is greedy ... arrogant ... deceptive."

Enron's downfall is depicted through the eyes of Cruver, an eager young MBA grad, in the CBS TV movie "The Crooked E: The Unshredded Truth About Enron" airing 9 p.m. EST Sunday.

The film is based on Cruver's 2002 book, "Anatomy of Greed" (Carroll & Graf Publishers, New York), which detailed his brief tenure as part of a startup Enron division that — ironically — tried to limit companies' risk from the potential bankruptcies of their clients.

Played partly for farce, partly for tragedy, the film nimbly relates a saga of avarice and hubris that seems implausible even from an insider's vantage point. CBS wins points for showing a TV movie with something to say.

The film, directed by Penelope Spheeris, stars Christian Kane ("Angel") as Cruver and co-stars Brian Dennehy, Mike Farrell, Shannon Elizabeth and Cameron Bancroft.

While carefully avoiding issues of individual culpability, "The Crooked E" paints a broadly harsh portrait of Enron leadership and the codependents that allowed them to play damaging corporate games.

Cruver finds himself tumbling down Enron's rabbit hole into a realm where integrity is touted but dubious dealmaking and bookkeeping are rewarded.

(In a detour from the book, which briefly mentions Cruver's wife, the movie depicts his home life as threatened by his newly adopted Enron mores. It's a sort of 21st century "Love Story" subplot, with corporate sickness instead of disease threatening young love.)

It doesn't take long for Cruver to suspect there's something rotten in Houston, although Enron and its off-kilter "E" logo (redesigned in the movie for copyright reasons) are standing tall with most investors, politicians and media. There are brief allusions to chairman Kenneth Lay's and Enron's association with President Bush.

A reference to Enron's "virtual assets" gives Cruver pause, but he quickly jumps into the brutish competition that demands results, however achieved, and rewards them in absurd measure.

Managers are paid upfront bonuses on a deal's projected 10-year profits — which the managers themselves have calculated. Supposedly overseeing the financial circus are in-house Arthur Andersen auditors, who are played for laughs in "The Crooked E."

One scene has them intently staring at a computer terminal — they're scrutinizing golf swings. In another scene, the auditors shoot at a miniature basketball hoop as Cruver wonders how faulty business practices could have been kept hidden.

Top Enron executives Lay, Jeffrey Skilling and Andrew Fastow are seen only in passing, but in infamously vivid moments. Here's Lay exhorting employees to buy slumping Enron stock, then putting in his sell order; there's Skilling, questioned publicly by a skeptical shareholder, snidely replying, "Thanks for the advice, (expletive)."

Enron vice president Sherron Watkins — anointed one of Time magazine's Persons of the Year along with fellow whistleblowers Coleen Rowley of the FBI and Cynthia Cooper of WorldCom — is depicted giving a doomsday warning to Lay.

Dennehy plays "Mr. Blue," an unidentified Enron bigwig who issues a liquor-fueled indictment of, among others, banks, analysts and politicians after the company's December 2001 collapse. He doesn't excuse himself or other Enron executives.

"We're the bad guy. We're the criminals," he tells Cruver. "And don't think it's just this company. There's hundreds of Enrons out there, a thousand. Cooking the books, inflating the earnings, hiding the debt, buying off the watchdogs."

Executive producer Robert Greenwald said he was intent on showing that what happened at Enron was not the result of "one or two rotten apples who did bad things." The company continues in limited operation.

"I did feel the problems were systemic. ... This euphemism called deregulation allowed these people to run roughshod in any way they wanted," said Greenwald.

Government investigations so far have led to guilty pleas of three Enron officials and the indictment of Fastow, who pleaded innocent in November to charges including fraud and conspiracy.

Although public outrage over the Enron debacle was fanned by other corporate misconduct also affecting stocks, retirement funds and jobs, attention has been shouldered aside by the prospect of war and other issues.

"Do you even remember Enron now?" a reporter appearing on PBS' "Washington Week in Review" asked last week. "At this point, it seems like such a long time ago."

Greenwald said working on the film rekindled his anger. Will viewers respond similarly to "The Crooked E"?

By Lynn Elber

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