I finally got the chance to watch Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room (IMDB) last night, and like the cinetrix, I found the documentary to be “as dazzling as the Houston skyline.” She’s absolutely right to read Alex Gibney’s documentary as a heist film. In fact, as I left the theater last night, I found myself thinking that the Enron debacle made Danny Ocean and his crew look like a couple of high schools kids shoplifting from a convenience store.
Turning Enron’s motto, “Ask Why,” on its head, Gibney’s documentary mixes interviews, re-enactments, stock footage, and, most powerfully, a few videotaped sketches and stockholders meetings to address how the seventh largest corporation in America could go bankrupt in less than a month, leaving thousands of people unemployed with worthless retirement accounts. The film also uses music very effectively, using popular songs by artists from Tom Waits to Dusty Springfield to comment on events and propel the narrative. Primary interviewees include the authors Bethany McClean and Peter Elkind, whose book provided the basis for the film. As Ted notes, “There’s an admirable depth and scope; I had the feeling that the filmmakers knew a lot more than they could fit in. It does an especially good job at explaining some of the big issues: how the institutions which should have blown the whistle (banks, lawyers, accountants, and analysts) had perverse incentives to keep Enron going, and how the pressure to beat expectations led to escalating fraud every quarter.”
But what amazed me about the documentary was the sheer audacity and hubris of the Enron executives from Ken “Kenny Boy” Lay’s embrace of deregulation and his close ties to the Bush administration (in Texas and in the Oval Office) to Jeff Skilling’s hypermasculine compensation for his nerdy past through Baja motocross vacations. From Lou Pai’s insatiable stripper habit (he was rumored to bring dancers back to Enron HQ to prove that he really was a wealthy executive and later divorced his wife to marry a stripper girl-friend) to Andy Fastow’s creatively named (Jedi, Death Star, M. Yass) shell companies designed to hide Enron’s losses, these guys plyaed the “greed is good” game as hard as they could. Skilling’s life-or-limb rugged masculinity sets the tone for the film’s portrayal of these Enron executives, though to the film’s creidt, it doesn’t overplay this interpretation of what happened.
Also disturbing: recordings of Enron’s traders on the sales floor knowingly creating a false enery crisis in California in order to inflate the cost of electricity by nine times over its original cost. The traders cackle over the phone about bilking “grandma Millie” out of her retirement money while ordering California electrical workers to close down plants for “repairs,” thus increasing the cost of electricity. Footage of car accidents caused by broken traffic lights due to electrical outages are chilling, with one remorseful trader later admitting that not only would he step on someone’s throat for higher profits, he’d “stomp on it.”
The film also explains how Enron was able to maintain such high stock prices even when real profits weren’t forthcoming. Specifically we learn about Enron’s practice, tacitly accepted by disgraced accounting film Arthur Andersen called “mark to market” accounting where “projected” earnings could be added to company profits to create the sembalnce of financial security. Other techniques included Fastow’s shell corporations (meanwhile Fastow was skimming off the top to a tune of $40 million). But by the end of the film, Enron’s twin glass towers jutting into the Houston skyline seem more like halls of smoke and mirrors, magic tricks designed to keep financial anaylysts at bay until finally Bethany Maclean gently asked how the company actually made its money. And even then, Skilling treats her mildly tepid article merely as an attempt to compete with a rival publication. In addition, Lay reads a question submitted to him by an employee soon after the wheels start coming off, “Are you on crack?” This question is one of the few times that we get a clear sense of just how disillusioned and downright pissed off many of Enron’s employess must have been. I would’ve liked to hear more from the employees who saw their retirement savings stolen by Enron executives.
Other beefs and arguments: A few readers have suggested that because of Lay’s ties to the Bush dynasty, the film might be read as anti-Republican. I don’t think that’s entirely the case, because the primary target here seems to be the effects of deregulation, a practice that received broad bipartisan support in the go-go 1990s. Ted criticized the film’s stripper scenes for being potentially gratuitous. I disagree, especially given the way those scenes shore up the degree to which the Enron executives were caught up in this extreme form of masculinity (but I’ll admit that’s a mild disagreement at most). These scenes, as well as some of the voice-over interviews, do have the effect of turning Lou Pai into an “exotic Other,” an inscrutable man of mystery who cannot be fully explained.
Finally, while the film does avoid the “bad apple” argument by implying that Enron wasn’t an entirely isolated incident, I’m not sure that it goes far enough in offering an alternative to Enron’s insatiability. In many of the shots of Enron’s glass skyscrapers, we see a giant church steeple (and in fact one of the film’s first shots shows a church sign reading, “Jesus Saves”), and Enron concludes with a local Houston minister explaining that he’s still counseling many of the Enron employees over three years after the company’s collapse. During this scene, the minister, quoting the Gospel of Mark, asks, “What does it profit a man, to gain the whole world, and forfeit his life?” The comment elliptically refers to the suicide of an Enron executive, but the metaphorical resonance is clear as well. However, I’m not sure that an injunction against greed is really a satisfactory response to the abuses committed by Lay, Skilling, Fastow, and others. But these comments shouldn’t outweigh my high regard for this film. Like many viewers, I was chilled by the utter contempt and disregard the “smartest guys in the room” had for their employees, for their California customers, for their stockholders, for just about anyone other than themselves.