Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room
February 25, 2006
Starring: John Beard, Jim Chanos, Carol Coale, Peter Coyote, Gray Davis, Joseph Dunn, Max Eberts, Peter Elkind, Andrew Fastow, David Freeman, Philip Hilder, Al Kaseweter, Ken Lay, Bill Lerach, Loretta Lynch, ,
Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room (2005) is the fascinating story of a company worth billions that went bankrupt in 24 days. Its top executives were consumed by greed and, not surprisingly, the results were the total collapse of a company (including 20,000 employees losing their jobs) embroiled in a major scandal that rocked the business world. This documentary takes a look at the rise and fall of Enron and asks the question, who was responsible?
At one time, Enron was the nation’s seventh largest company valued at approximately $70 billion. Kenneth Lay and Jeffrey Skilling were the top two executives and dubbed by the media as “the smartest guys in the room.” Smart enough to sell off more than a billion dollars worth of stock and shred tons of vital, incriminating documents.
Ken Lay was a self-made businessman with a Ph.D. in Economics. He tapped into the lucrative natural gas market and the government’s deregulation practices. Jeffrey Skilling joined the company and came up with the idea of making Enron a stock market for natural gas. And so it became the largest buyer and seller of natural gas in North America. He also brought to the table the concept of mark-to-market accounting which involved recording potential future profits the day a deal was signed and so this allowed Enron to tell the outside world whatever profits they wanted to say. This ended up being the root of the company’s ultimate demise.
Skilling fostered a macho, social Darwinian atmosphere amongst the traders that was inherently cutthroat. The more we learn of the man’s Alpha male practices the more it becomes apparent that he suffered from a massive inferiority complex and overcompensated wildly. Skilling was an economical terrorist who felt that he was above the law and that money was his religion.
The documentary makes a connection between Enron and the Bush family with the corporation providing significant monetary contributions towards Bush Sr.’s presidential campaign but it tends to shy away (or just couldn’t find any credible information) from George W.’s links to them. However, it is quite apparent that Ken Lay hooked up with the Bushes who used their influence to help them all make a lot of money.
Lay and Skilling fooled the business world for some time. Stocks rose even as their businesses were losing money. A Fortune magazine article by Bethany McLean drew the first blood by suggesting that Enron’s financial numbers didn’t add up but she didn’t have any real, concrete proof. Once things started going bad for Enron, executives either cashed in and tried to leave before the company collapsed, or turned on themselves, offering up each other as scapegoats while the average Enron employee lost everything.
Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room is done in the Michael Moore vein – think docu-tainment as director Alex Gibney juxtaposes stock footage with ironic music but the narrative is more linear in nature than in Moore’s films. The first half of his film charts the company’s rise and the second half their fall. Gibney tells a classic story of greed. These Enron execs were natural liars with a conscience bypass at birth. Lay and Skilling committed massive fraud and made lots of money as they played on Wall Street’s greed. It is astounding the amount of dishonesty that went on and how many people were implicated, including (peripherally) President Bush. Enron’s story is ultimately a morality play where, once again, the person who ultimately pays is the average person while rich executives escape with golden parachutes. So many lives were ruined by the unrepentant greed of a few executives.
There is an audio commentary by writer/director Alex Gibney. He credits Bethany McLean and Peter Elkind for helping him understand Enron’s story and all of the work that they did. He wanted to go into more detail about Enron’s international dealings but just didn’t have the time. Gibney keeps coming back to the tragic/comic elements in the Enron story and how he used the music of Tom Waits to enhance this notion. He feels that the film is about what’s “fundamentally wrong” with American society, that greed and self-interest is destroying it.
There are four deleted scenes, including one that features more footage of Enron exec Tim Beldon and how he fleeced the state of California out of millions of dollars. There is also footage of a handcuffed Ken Lay going to court and the ensuing media frenzy.
“Where are they now?” has Gibney talk briefly about what the major players in the Enron scandal are up to now.
“A Conversation with Bethany McLean” features additional footage from the doc with the Fortune magazine journalist who first broke the story of Enron’s potential illegalities. She co-wrote the best-selling book on the scandal that was the basis for this doc.
“A Conversation with Peter Elkind” is the co-writer with McLean. He talks about why he wrote the book and Skilling’s business philosophy.
“HDNet’s Higher Definition: Highlights from the Enron Show” features an interview with McLean about how she feels about the doc and investigating the Enron scandal.
“Firesign Theatre: The Fall of Enron” is a satirical skit by this veteran comedy troupe that reimagines the Enron scandal as a faux Wagnerian opera.
“Alex Gibney Reads from Enron Skits” are copies of screenplays from short films made in-house that were opportunities for employees to vent when things got stressful.
“A Gallery on Enron Cartoons” that is a collection of funny editorial cartoons.
Finally, there are three articles from Fortune magazine, including McLean’s famous piece that got the whole investigative journalistic ball rolling.