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Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room
reviewed by Matt Hinrichs

February 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 fiction" truism.

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 subjects.

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 apprentice".

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 gatherings.

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.

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