Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room (United States, 2005)

A movie review by James Berardinelli

Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room is truly a tale for our time. Today, Corporate America may pay lip-service to the term "ethics," but the men and women at the top don't understand or care about the definition. There's only one word that means anything to the CEOs, COOs, and CFOs of major companies, and it's not "ethics." Instead, "greed" is the mantra by which they live and work - get rich quick and damn the consequences (and the people crushed underfoot during the stampede to grab the money). From the boardrooms to the stockrooms, survival of the fittest means only those who raise the EBIT keep their jobs and get their bonuses. This is Glengarry Glen Ross on a larger scale. And it's not fiction.

Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room does two things exceptionally well. It provides a detailed autopsy of what happened (without becoming so technical that everyone except the lawyers and accountants in the audience become lost) and it warns against the culture of "synergistic corruption" that has infiltrated all of corporate America. Those who think this couldn't happen again are naïve. The film also offers insight into some of the unsubstantiated rumors that have been whispered since the energy giant's collapse. Just because director Alex Gibney doesn't venture deeply into areas where there aren't facts to support his claims, that doesn't mean we aren't able to draw conclusions about things like payoffs, bribes, and the possible benefits accorded to Enron by the close relationship between Ken Lay and the Bush family.

Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room chronicles how the Texas-based company grew from Ken Lay's gamble on energy deregulation in 1985 to the 7th largest corporation in 2000. In the midst of the late-1990s stock boom, money magazines couldn't write complementary stories fast enough. Lay and Jeff Skilling, the two men at the top of Enron's pyramid (which we eventually learned was "a house of cards…built over a pool of gasoline"), were media darlings, credited with creating a new business model. As the result of cooked books, stock prices soared, even though there were no real profits to justify Wall Street's optimism (the accountants were recording expected profits rather than actual profits). And the rolling blackouts in California, which were caused in part by Enron's rapacious methods of buying and selling energy, enriched the company's coffers enough to keep things afloat for a few more months.

It all came tumbling down in 2001 - not as suddenly and violently as the World Trade Center, but with plenty of social devastation. While Lay, Skilling, Andy Fastow, and others pocketed millions after dumping their stocks before they became worthless, 20,000 average workers were left without jobs, nest eggs, and pensions. On December 2, 2001, Enron declared bankruptcy. The story was over, but its telling had only begun. And there was plenty of blame to go around. Certainly, Enron's officers were guilty, but the tarring brush also blackened banks, accountants, attorneys, and Arthur Andersen LLP, whose reputation took a blow from which it may never recover.

The style of the film is much like that of a traditional documentary, replete with archival footage (some of which has such an obvious insider perspective that it makes one wonder how Gibney procured it) and talking heads. There are a few re-creations, but these are kept to a minimum. And, in addition to an original score, Gibney uses selections of pop music (such as "Son of a Preacher Man" and "Dear Mr. Fantasy") to underscore certain themes. This results in a little manipulation, but Gibney never pretends to be presenting a balanced perspective. Neither Skilling nor Lay agreed to an interview, so it's unsurprising that their point-of-view is not represented. Ultimately, it's the material, not the manner in which it is presented, that keeps the viewer riveted. This is another case in which it's like watching a train wreck and being unable to turn away.

Gibney, who developed the film from the book written by Fortune Magazine writers Bethany McLean and Peter Elkind, sees the rise and fall of Enron as a modern Greek tragedy. Lay and Skilling are the Great Ones, and their tragic flaw - the thing that brings them down - is hubris. The director also sees elements of black comedy in the story. For me, there's one other thing that Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room resembles: a horror movie. And the picture it paints is scarier than anything offered by any of Hollywood's recycled gore-fests.

Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room (United States, 2005)

Run Time: 1:53
U.S. Release Date: 2005-04-22
MPAA Rating: "R" (Profanity, Nudity)
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 1.85:1