Come see where all your money went.
Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room doesn’t start out particularly promising, with its quick cuts and actor’s reenactment of the suicide of an Enron executive. I found myself making a mental note to look up the term for the sort of mash-up of documentary and entertainment. Entermentary? Docutainment? Mooresque?
Fortunately, it settles down. What you get from then on is fascinating, though limited in its scope. True to its name, Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room focuses on the people responsible for Enron’s demise — specifically, CEO Kenneth Lay, COO Jeff Skilling, and CFO Andrew Fastow — and what they did to bring the company down. The film documents all this through news footage, videos at Enron insider sessions, and interviews with former Enron employees (since, after all, anyone who worked for Enron now did so in the past tense) and the authors of the book upon which it’s based, Bethany McLean and Peter Elkind, both writers for Fortune magazine.
So, what did Lay, Skilling, and Fastow do, exactly? Contrary to the title of the film, its story plays like a Complete Idiot’s Guide to Corporate Malfeasance. They built a highly effective, massive moneymaking machine on smoke and mirrors. The bedrock was flaky accounting processes. Imagine that you could claim that you’re going to be President of the United States in 2008, and that you can claim the $400,000 you’ll get per year as income right now. That’s essentially what Enron did — thanks to how they structured their accounting practices, they could start a project or deal, then regardless of the actual outcome, claim the income right away. It allowed them to define their own value, propping up their stock price and ability to borrow funds despite enormous losses. When that well threatened to run dry, Fastow created a legion of fake corporations that existed solely to trade with Enron, allowing more money to be borrowed and flow into Enron (and the officers’ pockets). Amazingly, one of America’s oldest accounting firms, Arthur Andersen, was complicit in the whole affair. But, even if all that was unethical due to its extreme illegality, far more insidious was their dealings in California. California attempted to reform the power industry by deregulating prices. Enron found every possible way to take advantage of the situation, and while they may not have been single-handedly responsible for the “power crisis” that resulted, they certainly profited to a great extreme from it. If all that wasn’t bad enough, while the ship was sinking the top execs illegally dumped their stock and profited wildly from it, even as tens of thousands of employees were frozen out of their retirement accounts, tied so closely to Enron stock, losing billions in retirement funds.
While what’s in the film is quite interesting, even at a little over two hours it left me wanting more. Sure, it touches on the personalities of the trio of top players, but what about their careers prior to the events depicted in the film? And the history of Enron itself? It’s the bare essentials, and anyone who wants more is going to have to turn to other sources — perhaps the book itself? (It’s going on my reading list, for sure.) As with most subjects, there’s considerable information at Wikipedia; I’ve included some links in the Accomplices. Another gripe, minor though it is, is the film’s padding. Perhaps I don’t watch enough documentaries, but I was surprised by the amount of stock footage. For instance, the film talks quite a bit about Skilling’s daredevil tendencies, and uses stock footage of motorcyclists doing all sorts of daredevil-y things. It’s visually interesting, but couldn’t the time have been used for actual information? The part that really bothered me, in a filmmaking sense, was talking about Lou Lung Pai’s penchant for strippers. Nothing wrong with strippers per se, but the inclusion of naked, gyrating bodies is oddly out of place and limits the usefulness of the documentary; I could see it being shown in college business courses, but those few seconds would definitely raise the ire of both conservative and liberal members of the audience.
The DVD presentation is impressive — not surprising, since it was produced by HDNet Films, a high-def television network (though it did receive limited theatrical distribution). The 1.78:1 anamorphic widescreen presentation is crystal-clear, at least with the interview segments; the other video is only as good as the source materials — after all, C-SPAN isn’t known for its scintillating video quality. Audio is Dolby Digital 5.1. While the quality is nice, the multiple channels are largely wasted.
Extra content is plentiful and of high quality. We’ll start with the commentary track. Recorded by the film’s director, Alex Gibney, he goes into great detail on the building of the film and the choices of what information to include and what to leave out. Nineteen minutes of deleted scenes are really expansions of material that’s already in the film, but that’s not to slight it, because as I’ve said, the film could only benefit from more information. Particularly interesting is raw footage from the indictment of Kenneth Lay. A 14-minute “making of,” “We Should All Ask Why?: Making the Enron Film,” is a documentary about a documentary, as it were. Bethany McLean features prominently, as an article she wrote for Fortune was one of the first pieces to question Enron’s success. “Where Are They Now?” is mostly about the legal issues surrounding the prime players. While Fastow plead guilty and was sentenced to ten years in prison, he’s not serving that sentence while he works with prosecutors in the other cases. Lay, Skilling, and Richard Causey (Enron’s Chief Accounting Officer) are scheduled to go to trial in January 2006 (which at this writing would be any day now). There’s a combined 13 minutes of further interviews with McLean and Elkind, outtakes from the film itself. “HDNet’s Higher Definition: Highlights from the Enron Show” is part of the promotion of the film on the HDNet network. I have to give it credit; when I saw the name, I expected sheer fluff like you’d see on IFC or E!. It’s actually a serious sit-down with McLean and Elkind hosted by Robert Wilonsky, a film critic for the Dallas Observer (who looks like Jon Favreau, if he worked out and shaved his head). Other bonus materials include Alex Gibney reading from scripts of skits performed at Enron, Fortune articles written by McLean and Elkind (including McLean’s original “Is Enron Overpriced?” article), a gallery of editorial cartoons, web links, and a Firesign Theater sketch about Enron’s demise.