I have been watching a spate of documentaries lately which seem to share some common elements. The topics have been greed, Enron, greed, the development and crushing of the electric car, greed, America’s military wars, greed, America’s history in the Middle East, and did I mention greed? These films prove the adage that reality can be stranger than fiction, and more disturbing as well precisely because they are about events that really happened.
Take, for example, the movie Enron: The Smartest Guys In The Room (2005), which is based on the book by the same name. Regardless of your prior disposition – most likely negative – toward Enron, this movie will make you more angry and cynical.
I already knew a great deal about Enron, more than enough to make me furious with how the executives of the company manipulated the electric market, deceived the public, and manipulated its budgets. Some of my knowledge came from reading newspapers, while I learned still more by reading News Junkie by Jason Leopold. I will soon be publishing an interview with the author, who describes going from being a drug junkie to doing investigative reporting, including some of the key stories that led to the downfall of the company.
But this movie made me mad as hell, to quote the classic movie Network. It included material I had not heard about before, from skits by company executives about how easy it would be to manipulate its numbers to speeches where an executive encouraged employers to continue investing in the company stocks at the same time the same leaders were privately dumping their own stocks and making millions in profits in the process.
Even more infuriating are tapes of conversations in which Enron traders joke about how rich they are getting by messing with California’s electric plants in actions that ultimately led to a phony state energy crisis and rolling blackouts. Put simply the traders would ask managers of power plants to shut down, thus raising the price of electricity.
This movie is not about numbers and dollars as much as it is about people, which Movie Mom eloquently describes in a review she wrote about the film. Unfortunately, the people in the movie are not the only ones who will bend the rules to fit their actions. The movie does an excellent job of using footage which may at first seem totally unrelated, such as film of a skydiver (clue: think the myth of Icarus, who flew to close to the sun).
Even more appropriately the movie includes footage of the famous Stanley Milgram experiments in which subjects were willing to take actions – specifically shocking someone – because someone appearing to be an authority figure told them to do so. If you are not familiar with the experiments I encourage you to follow this link.
Warning: This movie, not to mention those experiments, will likely increase your blood pressure so medicate yourself appropriately.
Who Killed The Electric Car? (2006) is also fascinating and infuriating, though about a topic which has not been documented nearly as much as Enron: the demise of electric vehicles. The dearth of documentation on the topic of electric vehicles, as well as the multiple suspects involved in this “death,” does not decrease its importance. Quite the opposite, in fact, as it does not take a scientist to guess that with the current state of society and the environment, the use of electric vehicles should be increasing.
But several factors – well-articulated in this fascinating movie – have conspired to make it difficult for consumers to easily get electric cars, with several recent exceptions like the Toyota Prius. It is too simple to lay all the blame on car companies. While the car company executives come out of this movie looking like greedy, evil, bloodsucking vultures, they are not the only ones at fault.
No, also to blame are government officials who caved to pressure – including from car executives – to block or repeal mandates that would encourage the manufacture and purchase of electrical officials. Consumers are also to blame. While many people say they want to help the environment some of these same consumers blanche at the concept of switching to a car that would require them to charge it at night, apparently seeing this as more of an inconvenience than going to gas stations.
The movie focuses on the electric vehicle EV1 manufactured by General Motors. The cars were leased to some Californians, some hand-picked for being influential, prominent, including actors Tom Hanks and Mel Gibson. These people loved their electric vehicles and praise them at length in the film. But rather than using this positive word-of-mouth, including Tom Hanks talking about the vehicle on David Letterman’s show, the car companies instead later demanded the return of the cars.
The pain of these people losing their now beloved cars is magnified as they learn, through an extraordinary amount of research and vigilance on their part, that the cars have been collected so they can then be destroyed. The movie leaves the viewer frustrated, with a bitter taste in the mouth that seems eerily reminiscent of motor oil.
This film could easily have been a simple indictment of car companies but the filmmakers instead make the wise option to tell the more complete story, about how others – consumers, government officials, etc. – were also complicit.
Why We Fight (2005) looks at not just the current war but past wars, the deceits by governments, the American relationship with the Middle East and other depressing but important topics.
The most heartbreaking plot arc in the documentary concerns William Sekzer, a Vietnam veteran and retired New York Police Department sergeant, whose son was killed in the 9/11 attacks. “Someone had to pay for this. Someone had to pay for 9/11,” Sekzer said.
He grew up believing that there are some people who, in his words, “walk on water and the president of the United States is one of them.” So when the president and vice president strongly suggested connections between Iraq and the 9/11 attacks, Sekzer made an unusual request. Remembering how names and words were sometimes put on bombs during Vietnam he asked that a message – reading "in loving memory of" his son – be placed on one of the bombs attacking Iraq.
But then Sekzer hears Bush say, on television news, “we’ve had no evidence that Saddam Hussein was involved” in the 9/11 attacks. Sekzer is furious, feeling angry and manipulated. He asks, “What the hell did we go there for?”
“The government exploited my feelings of patriotism, of a deep desire for revenge for what happened to my son,” Sekzer said. “But I was so insane with wanting to get even; I was willing to believe anything.
One of the more fascinating aspects of the movie is how prescient former President Dwight Eisenhower was about the military. This was particularly striking since he himself had been a military leader. Eisenhower was quite astute in stating in speeches, most notably in his farewell address, about the alarming growth in size and influence of what he called the military industrial complex. While that term is still used today, Eisenhower’s warnings have been forgotten by some and surely not heeded by many government officials.
The movie shows some of Eisenhower’s children talking about this issue. Most chilling to me was this statement from then-President Eisenhower: “God help this country when somebody sits at this desk who doesn’t know as much about the military as I do.” Oh, I’m sure that would never happen. Oh, what’s that? Someone in the movie responds to Eisenhower’s warnings?
“His words have, unfortunately, come true,” Senator John McCain, himself a prisoner of war in Vietnam, said. “He was worried that priorities are set by what benefits corporations as opposed to what benefits the country.
Which brings us, lastly, to The Road to 9/11 (2005), a good, thorough, but short documentary about the history of the Middle East. Most interesting to me was the history of the Muslim Brotherhood, the predecessor to Al-Qaeda.
The one-hour program is most notable for the experts given screen time, all of them wise and eloquent. While a bit dry at times it’s quite educational. If what you know about the Middle East comes via Michael Moore movies than you should watch this movie so you can get the facts free of his sensationalism and tricky editing.
Okay, that’s enough serious reality for a while. I’m going to go watch something more light, like the Oscar-winning picture The Departed. Hmm, okay. That’s a bad choice. I think I’ll return that via Netflix and pick something more relaxing, probably Mad Hot Ballroom and the new Neil Young concert movie.
This is your intrepid writer signing off.