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 at 9 p.m. 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 start-up 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 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 ("Wayne's World"), stars "Angel's" Christian Kane 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 deal-making and bookkeeping are rewarded.
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."
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 whistle-blowers 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.