Monday, March 06, 2006

Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room


Dir: Alex Gibney

Unlike everyone else on this blog, I was able to employ the easy-to-use search function for I Just Saw and review Ron's earlier review of this film. He notes the difficulties in rendering a complicated securities fraud story into a film. I agree, that was a hard thing to make come across (and is prone to some unfortunate overgeneralizations). But when the film transitioned to the less complicated, but no less greedy manipulation of markets within the law law, the film was highly engrossing.

The Enron scandal has at least two independent parts. First is the manipluation of accounting practices to mask Enron's losses and artificially inflate the stock price. This is what Lay, Skilling, and the others are currently under trial for. They used an accounting technique known as "mark to market" to post the future earnings from the sale of assets as present profits. They also set up a series of shadow companies that were manipulated by Enron executives.

The latter scandal is clear and indefensible. But I had the luxury of watching this film with the only person I know with an expert's knowledge of accounting, my father. While he cautions he has no particular expertise in this kind of accounting, I learned from him that mark to market is relatively common; indeed, if a company deals heavily in options or futures and does not use mark to market, that can easily be more unethical than not using it. Enron abused the system, but the film made the accounting technique itself out to be the culprit, some horrible lack of oversight. There were lots of oversight gaps here, but the technique itself is not one of them. That essential point could use a much more rigorous examination.

The film, though, is much more accurate and compelling when discussing Enron's perfectly legal manipulation of California's deregulated energy markets. You may remember the "rolling blackouts" of recent past. Enron and other companies were artificially creating energy shortages by literally turning off power plants and then selling energy at enormously inflated prices. It was these profits, not the shadow companies, that kept Enron running.

Audio tapes of the energy traders who were discussing these perfectly legal yet sinister schemes were fascinating. Sure, companies lie and cheat. But here was a devasting impact from corporate actions that we have little recourse to prevent under current law. The single minded attention to profit, and loose laws, tell a compelling story.

However, the film makes the unfortunate choice to make poorly argued political points about this controversy. Ron sees little politics in the documentary, but I found politics more up front, if so slightly evidenced that it was laughable. Gray Davis, interviewed on camera, is a saint, whereas George W. Bush is inferred to have somehow personally aided Enron. I have no doubt that the latter is indeed the case, but I need a shred of corroboration to accept the argument in this film. Bush once made a happy retirement tape for an Enron executive while he was Governor. That's about it for the evidence. Davis, as well, had ample opportunity to resolve the California law, but did nothing. He was just as in bed with the energy companies as Wilson. I could not help but think the filmmaker was just throwing in some anti-Republican stuff to sell DVDs.

I don't mind a political movie. But this is a poorly argued one, for which there is no excuse. Too bad, becuase some parts of the film are so compelling that the anti-deregulation message deserves a single minded focus. But given how much I have just written, I recommend the film on thought provoking grounds alone.



Blogger ronvon2 noted on 3/07/2006 12:21:00 AM that...

According to Gibney, they had to go through hundreds of hours of the tapes from the California energy trade deals to find those comments-one of the most distrubing parts of the film.