Movie Review
Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room


Director: Alex Gibney
Cast: Peter Coyote (Narrator)

nron. The name once praised by business insiders as America’s most innovative company is now synonymous with mismanagement, corruption, fraud, and failure. And just as we wish to learn the drug(s) of choice when we hear one of our showbiz heroes has succumbed to a young, non-violent death, we burn for the knowledge of how America’s seventh-largest company could have suffered such a fantastic collapse. A once-great corporate giant disintegrating into bankruptcy within a matter of weeks makes for good documentary fodder in itself, but the breadth and depth of dysfunction at Enron provided director Alex Gibney with an opportunity to deliver one juicy post-mortem.

Based on a book by Fortune magazine reporters Bethany McLean and Peter Elkind, Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room succeeds greatly in showing its viewers how Enron’s top guns exuded a bizarre mix of arrogance, eccentricity, and self-importance. By linking this cauldron of executive weakness to the failures of the company itself and the end results for each major player, Enron does enough to turn the casual news-watcher from a sane person with a quiet distaste for Ken Lay and Jeff Skilling into a frothing-mouthed beast of revenge. If Gordon Gekko were the imaginary worst-case-scenario, a trusting audience member would tell you that truth is far more frightening than fiction. And while the film is edited in a way that provokes a stronger negative response towards Lay et al than a line-by-line account of the facts, Gibney has plenty of evidence supporting his version.

Regardless of its relative objectivity, Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room is rewarding because of its alternately entertaining and powerful narrative. Lighthearted anecdotes about the off-duty exploits of Enron execs are balanced with recordings of some horrifying conversations had by Enron employees. For example, two such dichotomous branches of the film are the story of Lou Pai and a phone call from an Enron trader to the manager of a power facility in California. Lou Pai spent a few years running a wing of Enron called EES directly into the ground, all the while making nightly pilgrimages to a local strip joint for expense account-funded debauchery. Eventually, he left the company, having cashed in $270 million worth of stock options, and became the second largest land owner in Colorado. The trader, who remains anonymous in Gibney’s story, called the power plant and told its manager to, “Get creative,” and come up with a reason to shut his operation down. His compliance (which seemed forthcoming based on his responses) would have artificially raised the price of power so that Enron could turn a bigger profit in the newly deregulated California energy market. By intertwining sporadic laughs with such sobering moments, Gibney deftly navigates the perils of boredom and insignificance.

Why is this man smiling?

Also adding to the film is its amusing style. Segments containing interviews and recorded media are introduced by clever title cards, bluntly incredulous statements are typical of Gibney’s selected interview tidbits, and a fitting soundtrack acts as a backbone for the at once absurd and depressing story of a company’s demise.

Alas, the film is not without flaw. In fact, though Gibney’s episodic arrangement of Enron’s story allows for steady entertainment, he does sacrifice any chance of crafting a definitive statement. One could argue that his intent was to present evidence and let the audience decide the back story, but then some glaring omissions (like the fact that retail energy markets in California were never deregulated and Enron’s antics affected wholesale markets much more heavily) turn from editorializing to outright mistakes, or at least leave misleading impressions.

Additionally, some of the chapters were not given enough attention to remain effective. For instance, the close relationship between Ken Lay and the Bush family was thoroughly explicated, but Gibney leaves Gray Davis with the task of linking George W. Bush’s refusal to act on energy regulation in California to his relationship with Ken Lay. Though the story is unquestionably plausible, one should not ask the biggest victim of a crime whether or not the perpetrator was in cahoots with the biggest beneficiary. Had Gibney used face time from a disinterested party, his indictment of Bush II would have been much more persuasive.

Despite its warts, Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room is a surprisingly captivating documentary that manages to make more than its fair share of compelling points. Because of its breadth, Enron wears many hats, and the fact that this film works in so many of its attempted roles demands respect and praise for its creators.

By: Kevin Worrall
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