Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room (2005)
Starring: Peter Coyote [narrator], Bethany McLean, Peter Elkind, Kenneth Lay, Jeffrey Skilling, Andrew Fastow, Gray Davis
Directed by: Alex Gibney
I'll admit, when the Enron scandal was going down, I really didn't understand it. Before they collapsed, all I knew of the company was that it bought the naming rights for the Houston Astros' new baseball field. After the collapse, I learned that they were an energy trust of sorts, who apparently did some bad things financially, costing a lot of people their life savings in the process. (Of course, I learned all of this from The Daily Show). So, when I heard there was a new documentary on the subject, I was interested. Then, when it was nominated for an Oscar, I figured I should see it. Even if it was just a boring, information-based documentary, it would be worth seeing to educate myself on the matter.
Luckily, Enron is far from boring. Exhibiting all the hallmarks of the modern documentary, including a rock soundtrack, slick visuals, sardonic wit, and a crusading nature, the movie as entertaining as it is compelling. Based on the 2003 book of the same name by Fortune magazine reporters Bethany McLean and Peter Elkind (both appear in interviews for the film), Enron cuts through the financial and market vagaries, providing easy-to-grasp explanations for what exactly went wrong. Director Alex Gibney presents a well-researched film (using McLean and Elkind's research, of course), with a stunning amount of archival footage from the company, relating the tale in such a way that even a stock market virgin such as myself could understand what went on to make Enron fall from the seventh-richest corporation in America to bankrupt in a matter of years.
At the heart of the fall of Enron is a story of hubris on the scale of a Greek tragedy. CEOs Kenneth Lay (whom George W. Bush refers to as "Kenny Boy") and Jeffrey Skillet create a corporate culture in Enron so aggressive that they make Wall Street's Gordon Gecko look like a beatnik pussy. While exceptionally intelligent, both men are so driven by greed that they create "a house of cards... built over pool of gasoline". Neither man gives an interview for the movie (nor does eventual fall guy Andrew Fastow), but each are so well represented in the abundance of archival footage, including speeches, commercials, and even a corporate skit, that they are truly the stars of the piece.
The film makes no claim of impartiality, and has no problem painting Lay, Skillet, Fastow and company as the villains. However, this isn't a Michael Moore film. It has the zeal of a Moore film, but eliminates most of the distasteful elements that mar most of Moore's films... namely, Michael Moore. I'm a fan of Moore's documentaries, as his politics are close to my own, but I still get put off when he forcefully injects himself in the film and attacks unsuspecting subjects with his guerrilla interview tactics. They come off as self-serving and smug, and usually make me feel bad for the interviewee, even if I oppose their views on things. Gibney avoids these tactics, and lets the research and interviewees make his points for him. Which is great, because the last thing in the world I need is to feel sorry for these fuckers.
It is impossible to watch this movie and not feel outrage, particularly when Enron starts to manipulate the California energy crisis of 2001. No film in 2005 featured more deplorable villains than the traders who laughed openly at how their manipulation of the power grid drove up prices, pricing "grannies" out of their savings, and exclaiming "burn baby burn" in response to Californian brush fires. One can only hope that there is a special place in hell reserved for them. The outrage only grows when we're presented with the troubles of rank-and-file employees, some of whom only became Enron employees after their original employers were bought by the company, whose entire 401k's were rendered worthless upon Enron's bankruptcy, while the men at the top of the company had sold off their stock for millions weeks before.
But even more than outrage, this film instilled in me a true feeling of fear. Honestly, it might rank up there with War of the Worlds as one of the most terrifying films of 2005. That they were able to get away with everything they did, for as long as they did, while all the top financial analysts in the country kept hyping them as a can't-miss stock makes me worry about when the time comes where I have to invest for my future, and my family's future. Ultimately, the worst part of the Enron debacle is not that one company, driven by greed, collapsed spectacularly. Most of the top corporations are driven by greed. What's terrifying is that all of the checks-and-balances in the system that are designed to protect investors and the public, from the accountants, to the banks, to the independent analysts, to the government, all complied and aided Enron to lie, cheat, and steal its way to fortune, as long as they got rich along the way. Enron was a systemic failure of the highest order, and one would have to be extremely naïve to believe that the same thing isn't going on right now with another company, just waiting to ruin the lives of more employees, investors, and by-standers. Which is a much more legitimate terror than invading aliens.
Related (other documentary reviews):
The Fog of War: Eleven Lessons from the Life of Robert S. McNamara (2003)
March of the Penguins (2005)