The Smartest Guys in the Room
by Matt Hinrichs
27 , 2006
| Had the spectacular rise and collapse of Enron never
occurred, the saga would have made for an excellent dramatic film.
I easily could picture the pitch meeting: an epic story of greed,
power, and sex in settings that range from plush boardrooms to
Third World countries. It could star Michael Douglas and Catherine
Zeta-Jones as the CEO and his wife, with a ruggedly handsome George
Clooney type as the crusading head of the Senate investigation.
But it really did happen, of course. And director Alex Gibney's
Oscar- nominated documentary Enron: The Smartest Guys In The Room
serves as a shining example of the old "truth is stranger than
Based on the best selling book by Bethany McLean and Peter Elkind,
the film does a great job of outlining the complexities of the
Enron saga in a way that even non-Economics majors can understand.
To be honest, I wasn't sure how successful a documentary can be
when the subject it's covering has been endlessly covered in the
news and is still an ongoing story. My suspicions proved incorrect,
however. Through an intriguing mixture of testimonies, news footage,
and Enron's own bizarrely optimistic promotional material, the
film seizes onto the success that so obviously backfired on its
The three principals in the collapse form an unsavory trinity
as the movie's driving force. Founder and CEO Kenneth Lay is portrayed
as a decent, even admirable man until he is consumed by an appalling
"revenue at all costs" ethic. Former chief executive officer Jeffrey
Skilling, bullish on the outside and wounded on the inside, molds
himself into the embodiment of the company's preening, hyper-macho
public image. Finally, exec in exile Andrew Fastow — responsible
for the maze of bogus organizations founded solely to prop up
Enron's sagging stock value — acquires the sobriquet "the sorcerer's
After we meet the trio driving the corporate beast, the film
becomes a parade of increasingly desperate survival tactics. Each
unfolding facet in the Enron story resonates with an increasing
sense of dread: the cozy relationship with the Bush family, the
extravagant expense accounts and corporate retreats, the fudged
number crunching, the falsely constructed California energy crisis,
the lies told to cover up other lies, the stockholders meetings
which devolve from aggressively cheery pep rallies to lynch mob
Alex Gibney nicely weaves these various developments together
via a compelling mixture of pop music (opening brilliantly with
Tom Waits' paranoid "What's He Doing In There?") and quasi-abstract
imagery, such as the mesmerizing lights of electronic ticker tapes.
These elements, plus the slick editing, ably serve the film without
coming across as needlessly showy. Actor Peter Coyote narrates
with the proper mixture of authority and caution.
Magnolia's DVD of Enron: The Smartest Guys In The Room contains
a neat assortment of extras, including supplementary interviews,
a "where are they now" featurette, and a political cartoon gallery.
One especially welcome addition: McLean and Elkind's original
Fortune magazine articles, which originally sparked off the notion
that Enron was just a house of cards. It only took one well-timed
breeze to topple it down.
Matt Hinrichs is a Phoenix-based writer and designer. In
addition to Mindjack Film, he blogs regularly at scrubbles.net.