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Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room

By now, we've heard the riches-to-rags catastrophe that was the Enron debacle, but the documentary Enron: the Smartest Guys in the Room takes us inside--from the corporation's inception to its eventual implosion. It may not be a revelation to some, but it will be nothing short of maddening to all who see it.


In 1985 an ambitious natural gas pipeline corporation was formed in Houston, Texas; by 1992, Enron Corp. became the largest buyer and seller of natural gas in the world, and they were still on the rise. But by December 2001, a company that had once directly affected the health of the stock market, became one of the largest Chapter 11 bankruptcy in U.S. history. Ambition and innocence were nowhere to be found, nor was any documentation of what really went on throughout Enron's demise. But the evidence would later turn up, shredded and discarded like a Mafioso who knew too much. This is where Enron: the Smartest Guys in the Room starts--with the anatomy of the topsy-turvy scandal. The main two players in question include Ken ''Kenny Boy'' Lay and Jeff Skilling. They coined Enron's catchy slogan, ''Ask Why,'' ironic for obvious reasons but made even more apparent during the course of the film. One of their more notable ''accomplishments'' included netting millions and millions of dollars for themselves while fabricating the company's booming business, thus leaving those lesser employees out in the cold. In fact, the employees' 401(k) plans, on which their retirements depended, were frozen. But Lay and Skilling's own get-filthy-rich-fast scheme was all for naught, as the bubble was about to burst, taking down all guilty parties in its path. In the end, it was every man for himself, a type of behavior much more indicative of the corporation's arcane existence and internal relationships than their slogan would suggest.


Writer-director-producer Alex Gibney knows exactly what a documentary should be and should not be. He doesn't inject any sort of slant or personal vendetta into an already volatile subject, yet his subtle touches are concise and ingenuous, such as a strategically placed soundtrack. Tom Waits' ''What's He Building in There?'' is an apropos opener. Gibney also lets the camera be the eyes and ears, capturing something far more bedazzling than any expensive special effects could ever offer. These real-life villains paint their own portrait, black as they may be. They are cast in a naturally occurring dark light, full of greed and ruthlessness. And, as is the case with any intriguing documentary, it's all of their own doing. Perhaps most instrumental in the probe and subsequent downfall of Enron is Bethany McLean, a Fortune magazine journalist and co-writer of the book, The Smartest Guys in the Room: The Amazing Rise and Scandalous Fall of Enron, upon which the movie expands. She and co-writer Peter Elkind, a fellow Fortune colleague, who were heavily involved in the making of Enron, are also interviewed throughout the film. Together, Gibney, McLean and Elkind comprise a formidable bunch who are more intent on exposing and documenting the truth than on making people look bad. The Enron honchos do a nice job of that on their own.

Bottom Line

Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room is very relevant in today's corporate world and is relentlessly engrossing. It begs some very important questions: If bandits are well-dressed, well-spoken and rich, should it really make them a more palatable brand of criminal, somehow more deserving of sympathy than other such classes? Fittingly, only the questions are posed in the documentary, leaving the answers for us to work out.