For those who think they know what the Enron scandal was about, they’ll have to admit they didn’t know a tenth of it after they’ve watched this documentary, Enron: The Smartest Guys In The Room, directed by Alex Gibney, narrated by Peter Coyote, based upon the bestselling exposé by Bethany McLean and Peter Elkind. That said, I disagree with some of the premises the film is based upon- that being McLean’s claim that the story is about people, not numbers. This is because the film shows that the three main criminals that ran Enron into the ground, Chairman Ken Lay, CEO Jeff Skilling, and CFO Andrew Fastow, are nothing but selfish, run of the mill middle aged white men with a hard on for money- money alone. There is not a thing unique about these guys. There are versions of these lowest of life forms in every corporation.
The scariest part of the film is in knowing not that Enron was some monstrous aberration of the American religion of deregulated and unfettered capitalism, which saw it go from seventh largest company to out of business in twenty-four days, but the very sine qua non of it. In short, Enron was the rule, not its exception. I know, having worked at the old AT&T, before it was run into the ground by greed, criminal activities, and corruption. Enron’s only flaw was not in breaking laws, but breaking so many, and to such a wide extent, that it became the Hiroshima of corporate bankruptcies. That Gibney opts to make the Enron debacle seem unusual or exceptional is unfortunate, for only its size and impact was unusual, not its genesis nor outcome.
Other than this little bit of finessing, though, this film is right up there with Capturing The Friedmans and The Fog Of War as one of the best documentaries ever made. It’s a bit more serious than Supersize Me, and a lot more honest than Michael Moore’s pseudo-documentaries. Basically, Enron’s demise was a complicated shell game, for a company that initially was a natural gas supplier, but became a company that did nothing but buy and sell futures in assorted energies, including the ludicrous idea of selling weather futures. They expanded into areas they knew nothing of, such as the broadband business, and they tried to strongarm California into playing exorbitant prices for electricity, and wasted billions on an Indian power plant that could not provide energy cheaply enough that Indians could afford. To say they suffered from arrogance is an understatement.
Yet, they never would have gotten away with their massive fraud were it not for the enabling of banks (Credit Suisse, Citigroup, and JP Morgan), accounting firms (Arthur Andersen), law firms, and brokerage houses (Merrill Lynch), which tacitly accepted the con, nor the weak wills of business reporters who felt they did not know enough about business to understand how Enron made money. The first to catch on to the con was Bethany McLean, a soft-spoken, attractive, and very feminine reporter for Fortune magazine, who brought out the first questions about the company after the 2000 Dot.com collapses. The giveaway was Enron’s balance sheet, which was dependent upon mark to market profit booking- i.e.- listing supposed future profits now, rather than when money actually came over the Enron threshold. That the SEC allowed them to do it was taken as a green light for Enron to go even further in their shell game sans even the pea.
One has to wonder what purpose the Federal government still serves? It is merely an arm of Big Business when it’s not trying to play the global cop. Teddy Roosevelt must be doing cartwheels of horror in his grave. The FCC has basically killed the radio industry by conglomerating it into three of four networks, and the SEC has forgotten how to simply say no to mergers of companies that are already oligopolies seeking to become monopolies. Even ex-California governor Gray Davis shows that he was an imbecile, refusing to have the state take over the power plants when Enron implemented forced blackouts across the state. This film details how he played right into the hands of Enron, President Bush, and Arnold Schwarzenegger, and was soon out of a job.
The film is an hour and fifty minutes long, but so engrossing that the time flies by. It is cut and edited well, with ticker tapes occasionally detailing Enron’s state at a certain time in the film, and the soundtrack is particularly effective, with all of the main players having their own theme songs. Even minor characters, like the CEO of an Enron dummy corporation, Lou Pai, are fascinating to watch. He has never been indicted, and left the company before his troubles started, because he divorced his wife to marry a stripper, then left the company with about $350 million in the bank, and a ranch in Colorado that’s larger than the state of Rhode Island. There is a sequence which follows the 1960s Milgram Experiments, where test subjects were seemed to be allowed to torture other people on the directives of the experimenters. Over half those involved found ways to rationalize the supposed suffering caused by their pressing buttons. Another sequence shows a series of Enron commercials that feature the Enron motto ask why. This rings almost like a corporate version of a Jack The Ripper taunt to the police: come and get us!
The three main crooks, though, Chairman Ken Lay, CEO Jeff Skilling, and CFO Andrew Fastow, are as off the rack as they come. Fastow was skimming from Enron- i.e.- ripping off the con artists who showed him how to steal, by hiding Enron debt in dummy corporations, and getting rich off of it, while Skilling was the typical amoral nerd, with delusions of grandeur, who wanted to fuck with others because he was fucked with as a kid, implementing an absurd rank and yank policy that led to employees grading each other, with the lowest graded people being fired. Of course, this did not mean the worst employees were fired, only the least popular, or those who were not afraid to tell the truth. Thus, the corrupt culture of Enron was born. At one point, in an interview with financial reporters, Skilling, who was fond of glossy magazine photographs of his crotch, with phallic skyscrapers behind him, calls a reporter an asshole for asking how Enron makes money. Lay comes off the worst, though, his wife whining that they’re broke, even as he admits he has a net worth of over twenty million dollars, after lawyers fees, and stock losses. He was the one who hired Skilling after a similar scandal in the 1980s nearly derailed the company, never concerned with ethics, only profits. Lay even sickeningly and psychotically compares his and Enron’s criminal behavior, and the criticism of it, with the 9/11 attacks. All three started dumping their stock based on their most inside information months before the company tanked, and this forms the bases of the cases against Skilling and Lay, which are underway. Fastow opted to fink out on his bosses, after they set him up as the fall guy. He’s going to spend ten years in jail and testify against Skilling and Lay. Not that any of that helps the little people who lost their jobs, medical insurance, and pensions.
If this film does not prove, once and for all, that the glorious myth of the free market, and Adam Smith’s invisible hand, is a fraud, nothing will. The 1920s, the 1980s, the S&L Debacle, the Dot.com’s ‘New Economy’, Enron, and the dozen or so major corporate frauds after it, prove again and again that the only assets worth anything are material things. All else leads inexorably to disaster, and the sort of ‘innovation’ such companies offer is of the hollow sort, like changing the company motto from being the world’s leading energy company to being the world’s leading company. That’s when they were not producing in house video skits where they bragged of flaunting federal laws. Boy, these guys really were visionaries, eh?
The commentary by Gibney is actually quite informative, as he details people and events that the film does not cover, as well as going more in depth on those it does cover. It is a bit off synch from the main track, as when you listen to the commentary the lips of the people onscreen do not match up to their words, but this may just be with my disk. There are deleted scenes, the texts of magazine articles, political cartoons, several interview segments with Bethany McLean and Peter Elkind, and the main featurette, The Making of Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room. Interestingly, one of the listed producers of this film is Mark Cuban, who is the Dot.com wiz kid who survived the fallout of the millennial era, and now owns the Dallas Mavericks NBA team.
Enron: The Smartest Guys In The Room is one of those films, like The Fog Of War, that transcends its times, and will still be relevant in a thousand years, for basic human nature does not change, whether it’s in the easy fall into killing as a means to resolve disputes, or in the incessant human obsession to acquire for acquisition’s sake. This all makes for terrible human actions but great human drama. This film proves it.