Kenneth Lay (l.), Enrons chairman, Jeff Skilling, the CEO, at the companys headquarters as seen in Alex Gibneys Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room, a documentary at times confusing but that nonetheless does justice to a complex scandal for which the American public has unfortunately had far too little curiosity.
Alex Gibney, Maryse Alberti expose corruption at the core of Enron scandal
By Steve Erickson
Were Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room a screenwriting assignment, the teacher would probably give it a mixed grade.
Theres a clear, compelling arc and a dramatic structure. However, the Enron train wreck produced far more villains than heroes and its consequencesvia the companys malignant influence on Californias power industryaffected millions of people. Theres no one for the spectator to safely identity with, since the odd whistleblower or investigative journalists impact is dwarfed by Ken Lay and Jeffrey Skillings sheer arrogance. There are too many subplots and difficult concepts, like mark-to-market accounting.
Put simply, unlike Bill Clintons affair with Monica Lewinskywhich got massively more media attentiontheres no titillation.
Were lucky that no script doctors touched Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room. As a narrative, its sometimes confusing, but Alex Gibneys documentary does justice to a complex story and makes a larger point without shouting its political agenda from the rafters. Many recent politically minded documentaries, like Robert Greenwalds well-argued but artless Uncovered: The War on Iraq, prize activism over aesthetics. By contrast, Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room pays attention to style.
Cinematographer Maryse Alberti shot Terry Zwigoffs masterful Crumb, in addition to films by Richard Linklater and Todd Haynes. The staging of interviews in their subjects living rooms recalls that film. Theyre attractively lit and framed. Alberti and Gibney love reflecting surfaces. Many TV clips play out on a monitor facing a black table, providing a mirror image of the news footage.
Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room follows the lead of Errol Morris in using reconstructions. The suicide of Enron executive Cliff Baxter is dramatized, as are mundane actions like using a calculator and shredding paper. Sometimes, the film is too slick for its own good, as when it throws in about 90 seconds of gyrating topless women to illustrate one executives fondness for strippers. The purpose of this relatively lengthy display of T & A escapes mesomehow, I doubt anyone came to see a documentary on Enron to get turned on.
For the most part, however, Gibneys choices are well-selected. While Discovery Channel and History Channel programs often rely on vast amounts of cheesy reconstruction, Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room edits them and sets them to music effectively. The film succeeds as storytelling because it has the dimensions of a Greek tragedy. Lay and Jeffrey Skilling fell prey to their own hubris. While theyre the main villains of this tale, along with chief financial officer Andy Fastow, Gibney never lets us forget that their corruption couldnt have gone on without the assistance of other Enron executives and outside accountants and lawyers. He gained access to internal audiotapes of Enron traders, which are chilling in their sheer chutzpah. These men clearly had contempt for the entire state of California. Although Lay and Skilling are more polite, theyre equally prone to making damaging statements.
These machinations had political, as well as economic, consequencesthey are a large part of the reason California Gov. Gray Davis was recalled. Narrated by actor Peter Coyote, Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room isnt a subjective documentary in the vein of Michael Moore or Nick Broomfield. Still, it has a real point of view, one lying to the left of the two Fortune writers whose book it is based on. It shares the perspective of last years documentary The Corporation, which damned corporate culture as an arena of psychopathology.
A Texan minister observes that many of the former Enron workers he counsels blame the general amorality afoot in society for their problems. The film may let Davis off the hook a little too easy and give a pass to other companies that profited from Californias energy market crisis. Its innuendo about Enrons ties to Pres. George W. Bush is reminiscent of Moore at his worst.
Still, the film attacks systemic problems rather than blaming them on one or two bad guys. As a cautionary tale, its vital.