Ken Lay, Jeffrey Skilling, Andrew Fastow, and the rest of Enron’s upper management weasels are easy targets for condemnation, but rather than simply provide a damning critique of the company, Alex Gibney’s Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room, allows the crooks—via congressional hearing footage, videos of in-house company speeches, phone conversations, and television commercials (boasting the ironic slogan, “Ask Why”)—to hang themselves with their own words. A blistering portrait of capitalism run amok, Gibney’s electrifying documentary about the rise and fall of the energy giant—the largest corporate bankruptcy in the nation’s history, which led to millions of employees losing their jobs and retirement savings while a few VIPs absconded with millions—mixes such damning (and infuriating) archival materials with new interviews with former Enron employees, whistleblowers, lawyers, as well as authors Bethany McLean and Peter Elkind, whose book The Smartest Guys in the Room: The Amazing Rise and Scandalous Fall of Enron is the reportorial and structural basis for this cinematic investigation.
Light on new evidence but impressively comprehensive in scope, Gibney’s film astutely portrays Enron’s downfall as a story of unchecked hubris and greed. Lay, Skilling, and his cronies, all zealous supporters of free market deregulation, began with a dream of reinventing the energy business as a marketplace where gas and electricity could be traded like stocks and bonds. Their transformation of a pedestrian utility into a sexy conglomerate—thanks in part to their persuasive promotion of the company as honest, reliable, and innovative—led to astronomical stock price growth and the celebrity that accompanied being one of Wall St.‘s most lucrative bets. Yet because of a wily decision to obtain mark-to-market trading status, which, in effect, allowed Enron to claim unverifiable profits during each financial quarter, the company’s bigwigs soon saw, and seized, the opportunity to inflate corporate income numbers and award themselves enormous bonuses based on the phony figures. With the exception of a Michael Moore-ish bit of unverifiable conspiracy theory innuendo about the California recall—wherein Gray Davis insinuates that Schwarzenegger’s election as governor was an insidious plot orchestrated by Enron and W.—Gibney’s accurate film is molded in the Errol Morris tradition of hard reporting embellished with subtle touches of symbolic imagery. And especially with a dexterously edited segment on California’s 2001 rolling blackouts—in which news reports about the outages are set to audio recordings of Enron brokers ordering the shutdown of power plants and cheering on the disastrous news—the director sculpts a horrifyingly potent vision of ruthless avarice.
The film’s ultimate villain turns out to be not Enron poster boy Ken Lay but, rather, the vain, extreme sports-loving Skilling, a visionary CEO who, at some point, decided that a conviction in “the magic of the marketplace” went hand in hand with a belief in corrupt market manipulation. His blatant lies in front of Congress—as well as a telling conference call that concludes with Skilling dubbing an inquisitive investor (curious about Enron’s refusal to provide profit reports) an “asshole”—elucidate the unethical depths to which some egomaniacal corporate chieftains will go to satisfy their money-hungry appetites. Yet more than just an indictment of the Houston, Texas energy titan, Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room ultimately contends that the Enron fiasco was not an isolated incident of atypical unscrupulous management. A scandal involving accounting firm Arthur Anderson and most of the country’s leading banks (and featuring a disheartening lack of action on the part of President Bush, a long-time pal of the company), Enron’s collapse, as Gibney’s film convincingly argues, was part and parcel of an amoral corporate culture in which bending the rules—or simply creating new ones more favorable to the bottom line—was, and still is, the often-times preferred method of doing big business.