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ENRON: THE SMARTEST GUYS IN THE ROOM

Review by Michael Jacobson

Narrator:  Peter Coyote
Director:  Alex Gibney
Audio:  Dolby Digital 5.1
Video:  Anamorphic Widescreen 1.78:1
Studio:  Magnolia Home Entertainment
Features:  See Review
Length:  110 Minutes
Release Date:  January 17, 2006

"What's the difference between the Titanic and California?

At least when the Titanic went down, the lights were on." - Kenneth Lay

Film ***

What a tale is the story of Enron...comic and tragic, fraught with mystery and intrigue, and a drama that may continue to play on for a long time.  It was a tome filled with greed, fraud, underhanded deals, larger than life characters and countless victims.  It was the American Dream turned into a nightmare.  Enron's slogan was always "ask why", and people are still asking.

"How" might be an even more important question.  Enron was once considered one of the country's most admired and respected companies, yet it was all sleight of hand.  It had the illusion of something solid, but it was all a balloon that kept getting air pumped into it.  And we all know what happens when you fill a balloon past the breaking point.

It was started in the 80s by Ken Lay, and I'd certainly like to believe he began the company with more noble aspirations than authoring the biggest corporate scandal in our history.  Lay, as chairman, along with Jeff Skilling as CEO, were both savvy businessmen who knew how to create and sell an image.  I guess they thought the image was the reality...at least for a little while.

Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room is a compelling documentary that roots through the history of how the dream went sour.  It wasn't overnight, and it wasn't by accident...dishonesty and corruption grew from the seeds of avarice, and what was once a fruitful rose bush soon strangled many with an out-of-control growth of thorns.

The starting point was the idea of trading futures in energy as though it were a commodity like corn or wheat.  Profit speculation drove the stock prices up.  But the profits didn't always follow.  Yet as long as the company appeared on paper to be way in the black, anything was possible. 

And the possible became a frightening reality.  Dummy companies were created to hide Enron's losses.  Top executives found ways to have Enron do business with their own side projects, making the company's elites millions.  Enron's floor became a Wall Street unto itself...they became less about creating energy and more about creating trades.

By creating artificial shortages in electricity in California, they began the infamous rolling blackouts in that state and drove the price for power up.  They shut down power plants for "maintenance" for periods of time, and even exported electricity out of state for better profits while people in California went without power.

And perhaps worst of all was the selling job Lay and Skilling did on their own people, persuading them to invest their pensions in Enron while knowing the bubble was about to break.  They were still offering the confident smile and calm reassurance to their employees while secretly dumping their stocks.  By the time Enron collapsed, the top guys made off with hundreds of millions, while their blue collar workers saw their 401(k)s wiped out as Enron stock plummeted from over a hundred dollars a share to about nine cents.

The ship went down, and a lot of people and businesses went with it.  Many of the nation's top banks were connected to the scandal, financing Enron whilst likely knowing what the company was doing was fraudulent.  Arthur Andersen, which had been one of the most reputable accounting firms around, became little more than the ton of shredded Enron documents seized by the federal government.  There was at least one suicide.  And soon, Lay and Skilling will get their day in court, while still smiling and steadfastly denying knowledge of any wrongdoing. 

Writer/director Alex Gibney does a pretty good job of explaining it all, and his best work is when he just lets the incredible story unfold.  Like many young filmmakers, he can't resist being overly theatrical from time to time.  For instance, when one describes Enron's business practices as a magic act, we have to watch a magician as he pulls a rabbit from his hat.  Or the tale of one executive who liked to frequent strip clubs...we go to such an establishment and get a banquet of naked ladies to peruse to illustrate the point.  The movie probably got its R rating for that...there was no reason this couldn't have been a PG 13 movie.  Far more people would have seen it.

And far more people NEED to see it.  There's a fine line between wanting the government to keep its hands off of private enterprise and the need to make sure that these businesses stay above board and are held accountable if they knowingly commit fraud, cheat, or outright steal.  I don't know exactly where that line is, but I am sure of one thing:  wherever it is, Enron was firmly camped way over on the wrong side of it.

Video ** 1/2

The anamorphic transfer is certainly serviceable...most of the movie seems shot on lower budgeted film stock, and of course there are bits of video, old film clips and miscellaneous other pieces thrown in to serve the narrative (as with most documentaries).  Nothing wrong with the way any of it plays out; it just doesn't ring out with the same quality as a mega-bucks Hollywood production.

Audio **1/2

Same deal with the sound...it's mostly dialogue oriented, and thus requires little in the way of dynamic range.  Some of the song choices are a little campy...for example, they play Dusty Springfield's "Son of a Preacher Man" to illustrated that Ken Lay was...yes, friends, the son of a preacher man.  Not much demand is placed on the rear stage, but for this kind of production, you don't really miss it.

Features ****

This disc is loaded with terrific extras, starting with a solid commentary track from writer/director Alex Gibney, who is generous and pleasant with his thoughts and remembrances.

There is a making-of featurette, a conversation with the authors of the book of the same title Bethany McLean and Peter Elkind, a Fireside Theatre presentation, additional in-house Enron skits, a collection of Enron cartoons, and the original articles from Fortune Magazine.  You can also look up and find out "Where Are They Now?" or access an index of websites to keep you updated on the current events, plus peruse a trailer and some other previews.

Summary:

Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room documents modern business's greatest cautionary tale:  an epic tragedy brought about by hubris, greed, and fragile illusions.  It serves as a good handbook to guide us through a mess we may be sifting through for decades to come.

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