Saturday, February 11, 2006

Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room

Dir: Alex Gibney


The CNU documentary film series continues with this Academy Award nominated film about one of the largest corporate scandals in US history. Although I kept up on the news during the Enron collapse, I never knew the complexity and depth of this scandal. Unlike many documentaries on tragedies that cultivate a sense of pathos by focusing on the victims, Gibney's film is a psychological study on how power and money seduces insecure men of risk. This choice allows us to simultaneously hold disdain for the company's executives while understanding how anyone in a similar position would fall prey to the same influences. Gibney ties the rise and fall of Enron to the fortunes of Ken Lay and Jeff Skillings (among others), the smartest guys in the room. Currently, they are standing trial on a series of counts stemming from various forms of corporate fraud; although their defense rests on plausible deniability, the film clearly suggests that the corporate climate and the micromanagerial tendencies of Lay and Skillings would make such a defense untenable.

Gibney tells the Enron story with a very Michael Mooreish flair; with planted tongue in cheek, Gibney includes a playful soundtrack and a series of biting jokes where laughter covers the darker side to human nature. Both Lay and Skillings, particularly the latter, are depicted as calculating and uncaring, sacrificing all scruples for the bottom line and the thrill that accompanies risky financial decisions. It was surprising to see how easy it was for this business to exploit every loophole to artificially inflate earnings, and consequently the stock price. Gibney makes numerous suggestions that there are broader political forces that help sustain Enron's corporate practices. However, Gibney often stopped short of any biting arguments for political corruption: the relationship between Enron and the Bush family is clearly established, but he fails to identify any larger impact to this relationship.

Overall a good documentary. In the Q & A after the film, most folks only asked questions about the business side of the story and his thoughts on the trial, subjects matters he did not have a complete grasp on. In theory, telling a story about corporate accounting fraud does not make for good cinema, but props for the effort and execution.