Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room
2005, NR, 110 min. Directed by Alex Gibney. Narrated by Peter Coyote.
REVIEWED By Marjorie Baumgarten, Fri., April 29, 2005
It’s a truism that things are done big in Texas, but who knew that approach applied to failures as well successes? The Enron debacle – the bankruptcy scandal that demolished the Houston corporation that was ranked the seventh largest in the country, and also devastated its swindled employees, stockholders, business associates, and even casual observers – is put under the microscope in Gibney’s documentary. Based on the book by Fortune writers Bethany McLean and Peter Elkind, Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room documents the collapse in vivid detail and with cinematic flourish. Moreover, the film doesn’t require an economics degree to understand the factors that led to Enron’s demise, although laymen may occasionally wish for a pause button in the theatre in order to absorb the volumes of information in more manageable scoops. The film teeters between two narrative strategies: Enron’s undoing seen as the work of some bad apples who tainted the whole bushel and the story of Enron as an American saga – a story not only of rampant hubris and self-interest at the local level but also a story about the operational mentality of the largest corporate contributor to George W. Bush’s re-election campaign and the tacit complicity of banks, accountants, stock analysts, and others in willfully turning a blind eye to irregularities that might have pointed out that the emperor was wearing no clothes. With such characters as Kenneth Lay, Jeffrey Skilling, and Andy Fastow at the helm of Enron, the "great man" approach is irresistibly tempting, since their "sins" are so lurid and grandiose. Gibney makes great use of lots of inside material: training films, news footage, party spoofs, and some especially damning audiotapes of Enron traders callously manipulating the price of oil on the West Coast as California suffered the consequences with rolling blackouts. In the course of showing these scoundrels for their true measure, Gibney strikes a few unfair blows that make it clear that the filmmaker’s stance is not fully objective, and that should not be forgotten either while watching his film. But the sensibility that manipulatively matches the Traffic tune "Dear Mr. Fantasy" with the introduction of Andy Fastow is the same sensibility that closes the movie with Tom Waits’ fabulous rendition of "God’s Away on Business." (The film's music choices show great forethought.) Despite these biases, the movie helps the average American understand the nature of the shell games perpetuated by Enron and how "synergistic corruptions" can corrupt absolutely. (For more on the film, see austinchronicle.com/issues/dispatch/2005-04-29/screens_feature.html for an interview with the director.)