April, 2005, Documentary

Enron: The Smartest Guys In The Room

Bethany McLean and Peter Elkind, co-authors of the recently published book "The Smartest Guys in the Room: The Rise and Fall of Enron" teamed up with veteran documentary filmmaker Alex Gibney to create this devastating examination of the most highly publicized corporate scandal to emerge from the high flying stock market at the end of the 1990’s . Cleverly mixing interviews of devastated employees with newsreel footage and damning internal videotapes of corporate pep-talks, the creative team behind this movie has constructed a surprisingly lucid examination of the complex chicanery involved. They leave no doubt about where to place the blame: it rests most specifically with the unholy trinity of Chairman Ken Lay, CEO Dick Skilling and CFO Robert Fastow, (already serving time for his role in the company's collapse). Lay and Skilling go to trial on criminal charges early next year, but anyone who sees the movie will have to be excused from the jury pool--after 110 minutes of this enraging material, viewers will definitely be in a hanging mood.

The film's laudable clarity results from the manner in which an enormous body of information was organized; it's set forth in a series of visual chapters, (each wittily titled) that begin with an individual history of Lay, then Skilling's obsession with "big ideas", on to Fastow's sleight-of-hand off financings, (so assiduously supported by all the big institutional names in commercial and investment banking). These segments are then followed by an analysis of the devastating California electric power scandal and finally the escalating levels of deceit which caused the company to spiral out of control, contributing to the suicide of one executive, the jailing of a half-dozen others and the loss of jobs and pensions by everyone else involved. Through it all, the filmmakers return to actual footage of Lay and Skilling assuring employees and shareholders alike that Enron remained in fine shape, ready to gear up for its next successful venture. Lying has never been so shamelessly demonstrated, nor has the mendacity of those delivering it been so devastatingly substantiated out of their own mouths. Muckraking this may well be, but it's muckraking of a very high quality.

You don't have to be conversant with big business to follow the various threads of this gigantic deception, nor must you subscribe to a particular political philosophy to be alarmed at the cozy relationships explored here between the centers of power on Wall Street, in Washington and the executive offices of corporate behemoths like WorldCom, HealthSouth, Adelphia and the like. Hubris, greed, disdain for "the little guy" and a soulless lust for the kind of macho-style "masters of the universe" power Tom Wolfe has written about --its all here, in spades. (Unfortunately, in all the finger pointing, no mention is made of the gullibility and avariciousness of many of Enron's stockholders--especially the institutional ones--who were perfectly willing to be treated like sheep as long as Lay & Co. kept the double-digit returns coming.) Perhaps "caveat emptor" remains good investment advice as well as a quite sensible restraint on personal avariciousness.  

"Enron" doesn't possess the magisterial sweep or technical sophistication of Earl Morris' brilliant examination of Former Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara in The Fog Of War, but this one is nevertheless a splendid cautionary tale, told with consummate cinematic skill. 

See it, unless you lost a ton on the stock and don't want to be reminded of your own role in this debacle.  

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