The pity of a movie like this one is that the people most in need of seeing it are the very people who won’t. They’ll brand it as “liberal agenda” propaganda and head off to see Star Wars, where the liberal agenda is washed clean in a sea of severed limbs and falls on ears deafened by explosions, whooshing light sabers and rumbling space ships.
It doesn’t help, of course, that Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room is a documentary — and one that deals with corporate greed, creative accounting, stock deals and similar topics that are understood only abstractly, if at all, by most of us. At least that’s how it appears on the surface. The reality, as presented in Alex Gibney’s film, is a lot closer to the old shell game where a flashy carnival barker defies his mark to find the pea under one of three manipulated walnut shells.
At bottom, the scheming here is not much more complicated than that. It’s called a Ponzi scheme — after swindler Charles A. Ponzi, who cooked up his own variation on the pyramid scheme in 1919. The idea is that early investors in a company are paid off not in actual profits, but with money paid into the scheme by subsequent investors. The Enron debacle differs very little from this scenario, except in its spectacular scale: 20,000 employees lost their jobs, along with $2 billion in worthless pensions and retirement funds.
In his film, Gibney attempts to explain how this came about by examining the personalities of the key players, and for the most part he succeeds in creating an astonishing portrait of unbridled ego, callousness and macho posturing.
The film starts with a dramatic re-creation of Enron Vice Chairman Cliff Baxter’s suicide. Despite the clever use of Billie Holiday’s “God Bless the Child” on the soundtrack, this scene represents one of Gibney’s few missteps. It’s wildly out of kilter with the rest of the film, and frankly, with it’s amateurish Unsolved Mysteries look, the scene proves that Gibney isn’t much of a narrative filmmaker.
Fortunately, Enron quickly settles down in a more straightforward approach as it examines the story of Texas oilman Kenneth Lay’s company. The son of a Baptist minister, Lay — as famous for being the largest contributor to George W. Bush’s 2000 presidential campaign as for anything else — is a remarkably uncharismatic character who’s mostly distinguished by his coldness, his apparent lack of ethics and the somewhat unsettling fact that he’s known as “Kenny Boy” to both his wife and our current president.
Enron was Lay’s brainchild, but much of the company’s approach to business was created by Lay’s far more flamboyant administrator, Jeffrey Skilling. A self-invented “man’s man,” Skilling went from being a pudgy nerd to a poster boy for coolness, developing a penchant for extreme sports and a knack for bulldozing others into submission with the promise of untold riches. His great innovation was to present possible future profits as the real thing — while burying the company’s actual losses in phony offshore companies with transparently fake names like M. Smart (Maxwell Smart) and M. Yass (My Ass).
That many people never caught on to the scheme was in itself remarkable. But the film shows that a good many people in the financial world who were in a position to profit without personal risk did realize that things were not what they seemed. It was simply in their best interests to pretend not to notice.
As things devolved, Skilling and Lay got more obvious and overt in their contempt for the folks they were taking for a ride, with Skilling going so far as to brush off a market analyst’s potentially revealing question by calling him an “asshole.”
The most horrifying parts of the story are in the “found” footage that Gibney assembles — corporate training films for the employees, a video greeting of good wishes from the Bush family, news footage of Skilling’s and Lay’s remorseless, ego-driven responses to congressional hearings, scenes of corporate leaders chuckling over the misfortunes of their shareholders. This material almost relegates to the level of footnotes such outrages as executives exhorting their soon-to-be-jobless employees to invest in Enron while those at the top unload their shares as quickly as possible.
It’s a chilling and maddening saga, one that Gibney puts together with considerable skill, so that the film is also persuasive, bitterly amusing and entertaining. It’s a movie that everyone should see.
– reviewed by Ken Hanke