Movie review by Greg Carlson
A politically charged documentary that joins several recent entries in criticizing the current Bush administration, “Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room” manages to be simultaneously entertaining and enraging. Bringing to life the book by “Fortune” magazine writers Bethany McLean and Peter Elkind, director Alex Gibney builds his movie around articulate talking heads, the clever counterpoint of stock footage, and damning, Enron-produced corporate video. The result is a jaw-dropping expose of financial and moral bankruptcy.
While its central characters are too shuddersome to merit comparison to figures in Greek tragedy, the movie details a colossal exercise in the worst possible hubris. Enron founder Ken Lay (“Kenny Boy” to George W. Bush) teams with oily Ivy Leaguer Jeffrey Skilling to run an energy company that exploits so many legal loopholes, one wonders why the government bothers to regulate these business behemoths at all. Along with numbers wizard Andrew Fastow, Lay and Skilling made voodoo out of the ridiculous practice called “mark-to-market,” which allowed Enron to report potential future earnings as current profits. While their stock price indicated nothing but blue skies, the company was in actuality hemorrhaging cash and spiraling into unimaginable debt.
Of course, this did not stop the top dogs from pocketing millions on their personal stock options, even as the rank and file invested in retirement funds that would quickly turn out to be worthless. The story of Enron, which is sadly familiar to so many people, is a David and Goliath tale without a happy ending. It is difficult to say whether Lay and friends were truly evil, but the movie provides more than enough evidence to suggest that Enron’s top executives ought to be locked up for a long time. The film directly links California’s energy crisis (which led to Schwarzenegger’s successful bid to recall Gray Davis and seize the governorship) to Enron, and the audio of traders salivating over how much money they stand to make sickens the stomach.
As a director, Gibney is at his best when he reminds us that greed thrives on co-dependency. Rather than point out that Enron’s bookkeeping was a clear case of the Emperor’s New Clothes, the whole gamut of participants – from traders to reporters to accounting firms – happily congratulated the company even when logic suggested that things were more than a little off. Whistle-blower Sherron Watkins is interviewed, but strangely, the movie doesn’t spend enough time with her to make her out to be a hero. She is, however, a reminder of sanity and reason – something nonexistent at the company’s highest echelon.
Actor Peter Coyote narrates the film, and his slightly arch tone adds the perfect amount of principled superiority to the story. The facts justify this kind of attitude: Skilling refused any responsibility for his actions, walking away from Enron with millions of dollars and the knowledge that the walls were closing in. Following his departure, Lay has the disgusting temerity to compare “attacks” on Enron to September 11, 2001. One thing the movie overlooks is the behind-the-scenes relationship of Skilling and Lay. It would have been intriguing to know whether and to what extent the pair plotted separately or together. Even so, “Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room” offers more than enough food for thought.
This review was originally published in the High Plains Reader the week of 5/30/05.