If indignation sells - and Fahrenheit 9/11 has confirmed that it can - then the new documentary Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room would have to be in the running for the Feel Angry Movie of the Year.
Everybody knows the story of the Rise and Fall of Enron, the ostensible energy company that did everything Texas style, including a larger than life financial collapse that became synonymous with the burst bubbles and punctured hubris of the great bull market. But of course we never knew the whole story. Or maybe we were inclined to write the rotten apples at Enron off like a bad investment ourselves. But producer/director Alex Gibney, working with the book by Fortune reporters Bethany McLean and Peter Elkind, takes a great sadistic pleasure in revealing how much worse things actually were. And should anyone think we can sleep better having removed Ken Lay and Jeffrey Skilling from power, consider just how easy it was for men in authority to look people in the eye and tell outlandish lies. And how willing we were to believe them.
By the mid-1990s Enron was famous as much for being innovative as for anything they actually sold. They were no longer merely the major supplier of natural gas in the U.S., they were changing every business paradigm they could get their hands on. The book and documentary title refer to the corporate culture that drove Enron. Itís people were the best in the business, whatever that business might be. There was nothing they couldnít do, and no one who didnít believe in them, including the investment bankers and market analysts who were paid to be suspicious. But while its stock price soared to giddy new heights, Enron was plunging 30 billion dollars into debt that it somehow managed to keep hidden. Even its utterly craven profiteering in the California energy crisis that it helped create in 2001 couldnít save the free falling company.
So where did Enron go wrong? The documentary suggests perhaps it was never right. From the very beginning Ken Lay rewarded people who could create the illusion of success. Enron may not have had the smartest guys in the room, but they did have the best magicians. And as clever as they may have been, we still watch incredulous as to how they ever thought they could get away with it. Invoking an infamous 1950s behavioral study in which otherwise decent people administered lethal pain under the orders of authority figures, the filmmakers suggest that Enron may have been just plain evil.
Yet the documentary is not especially political, nor does it shake its head too earnestly. Mostly it's content to let the architects of disaster hang themselves with their own words, while sprinkling the soundtrack with glib offerings like Traffic's "Dear Mr. Fantasy." It would have made a great tragedy if any of the characters had been remotely sympathetic. As it stands, Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room is precisely as entertaining as it is infuriating.
© 2005 - Casey McCabe - Air Date: 6/8/05
Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room
USA - 2005