Enron: The Smartest Guys In The Room

on April 22, 2005 by Wade Major
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It's hard to imagine any dramatization of events surrounding the scandalous, legendary collapse of Enron rivaling what documentarian Alex Gibney has pieced together using little more than archival footage and firsthand interviews. Indeed, there's an almost mythical dimension to the energy giant's rise and fall that would verge on the inconceivable if not for the fact that it's all true. For the most astonishing aspect about "Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room," which takes its title from the bestselling book by Fortune reporters Bethany McLean and Peter Elkind, isn't the magnitude of the fraud perpetrated by Enron brass, but the inconceivably vast complicity of bankers, accountants, lawyers and financial analysts who should have been keeping the company honest.

The 110-minute film traces Enron's troubled history from its beginnings in the late '80s right up to the present. It's really too much to address in less than two hours, though its key segments -- which mostly focus on the crucial 1996-2002 period -- are engrossingly meticulous and thorough. Three figures emerge as chief culprits: CEO Kenneth Lay, COO Jeff Skilling and CFO Andy Fastow. Of the three, it's Skilling who comes off worst, looking more like a reckless, domineering cult leader than a businessman. His own statements and public testimony, in fact, are far more damning than the actual recollections of former executives and employees. As architect of a corporate structure that facilitated the artificial inflation of stock price while hiding the company's mounting losses, Skilling is made to appear like a kind of corporate Svengali, able to sweet-talk the financial community into believing just about anything about the company's finances, even in the face of mounting evidence to the contrary.

In the interest of time and for the sake of narrative momentum Gibney often oversimplifies the paper trail and abridges the timeline, but offsets those truncations by making an otherwise complex deception impressively graspable to the lay-mind. Unfortunately, there's also a partisan dynamic here that risks undermining the film's ability to reach a more broad-based audience. Bookended with mostly speculative attempts to implicate President Bush and Vice President Cheney, the picture also takes a fairly cheap shot at California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger (not to mention a strangely far-fetched crack at former President Ronald Reagan) while seeking to absolve former California Governor Gray Davis of any responsibility for the energy crisis generally credited for his recall. In contrast to the damning assemblage of facts found elsewhere in the film, these sections feel a little too polemical, as though Gibney doesn't trust audiences to reach their own conclusions about such issues as deregulation and American corporate culture. Gibney, however, is no Michael Moore -- he knows the difference between hard facts and circumstantial evidence, constructing very different arguments with each that should enable audiences of different political persuasions to still find a significant amount of common ground. And that, if nothing else, should go a long way to helping facilitate consensus on fixing the systemic failures which Enron executives and traders so viciously exploited. Directed and written by Alex Gibney. Produced by Alex Gibney, Jason Kliot and Susan Motamed. A Magnolia release. Documentary. Unrated. Running time: 112 min

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