Getting Ahead of Themselves
Enron's collapse caught on tape, kind of
[Editor's note: Parts of this interview have been taken from "The Enron Autopsy: Alex Gibney Takes on 'The Smartest Guys in the Room'," The Austin Chronicle, March 11.]
Alex Gibney's HD-shot The Smartest Guys in the Room based on the book by Bethany McLean and Peter Elkind is a flashy two-hour dagger filled with candid talking heads, bizarre found footage, re-enactments, extreme sports clips, creepy swing jazz, Tom Waits, Peter Coyote narration, and convoluted but indisputable facts expertly conveyed. "I don't know if I set out to make a new kind of documentary, but I did feel that there were certain things I needed to do and I felt that I had to make a new kind of rule book," the director says. "Enron itself was a company that was very much about illusion, right? ... I felt that it was very important to try and find a style that would, um, celebrate that."
Gibney found that style, but it should be noted that what results is a rather fair and measured study. For instance, a fascinating sequence overlaying tape from the mid-century Milgram Experiment involving actors, inflicted electric shock, and the exploration of how our inner evil emerges as long as authority condones it with recorded (and celebratory) conversations among Enron traders during the yearlong California power crisis is gradually met with relatively empathetic testimonials from former employees notably the hyper-intelligent Amanda Martin-Brock and an underlying survey of corporate culture complete with the admissions of analysts who were, for the most part, fooled along with everyone else.
A week before accompanying the film at South by Southwest Film 05, Gibney spoke with the Chronicle from New York.
Austin Chronicle: How were you able to tell such a complicated story in two hours?
Alex Gibney: Well, that was the hard part. It was tremendously difficult because it comes down to a very difficult question: How did they pull it off for as long as they did? I think that is the great question. That's why I ended with that the young trader saying, "Ask why," because it was mostly because they had big brass balls. ... I don't think that anybody at Enron set out to create a great fraud. I think it happened incrementally as the distance between the profits they were reporting and the cash they actually had coming through the door got greater and greater. ... Nobody was willing to ask questions. That's really the most damning and interesting part, and that's scary, because you think how many other powerful institutions are able to get way with such extraordinary shit simply because they strut their stuff. Because they say, "How dare you question me, I'm Enron!" I have to tell you, my brother went down there [to the company's Houston headquarters] my brother's a print journalist my brother went down there and he met with Ken Rice and Lou Pi and a couple of other people, and he left shaking his head and saying, "You know, I'm not sure I understand really how they're doing it." But instead of saying, "These guys are fraudulent," he said to himself, "I guess there's something wrong with me."
AC: Seems like there's a scary parallel there with the current administration.
AG: I agree with this. I think there is a certain arrogance in the current administration, and also a willingness to manipulate public opinion in a way that is, uh, chilling because it is so cynical. One thinks of the Jeff Gannon episode recently. I mean, how cynical is that to basically include a phony reporter in the press room of the White House in order to get a better spin? It's such an utter disregard for the truth, and other people at Enron said this was marketing; it was marketing maybe taken one step too far, but at a certain point, they crossed way over the line. What they were doing was creating a vision that simply wasn't true. It's an interesting film for a filmmaker, because Enron was like a studio: They were really good at manufacturing images and they spent a lot of time with the media, and when the media crossed them, their PR people really came down hard. So, you look at some of those employee meetings I was only able to get a few bad copies but what's remarkable about some of them is you can see crane shots! It's like, how many employee meetings go out and rent some jibs and cranes? It's unbelievable!
The Smartest Guys in the Room opens in Austin on Friday, April 29. For a review and showtimes, see Film Listings.