“Ask Why.” It was Enron’s leading promotional tagline. Maddeningly, if the colossal debacle that is the Enron story has a moral, the lesson to be learned also appears to be “ask why.”
Based on The Smartest Guys in the Room, a best-selling analysis by Fortune magazine reporters Bethany McLean and Peter Elkind, Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room presents a morbidly compelling look at the Darwinian economics and cutthroat business philosophy that birthed a company constructed with smoke and mirrors and run on moral corruption.
The beauty of writer/director Alex Gibney’s film is in the sense it makes of the (intentional) information mire Enron used as a business model — a mire that muddied even the aftermath of the scandal. When the company crashed in August, 2001, the greater part of the American public was left with a fuzzy information hangover.
We knew about the rolling blackouts in California. We saw the boxes and boxes of shredded paper carted out of the Arthur Andersen accounting offices. We knew Enron had something to do with energy and maybe something to do with direct TV. We knew Enron had big bucks and slick commercials. The hard part was putting a finger how all that tied together. Enron does this well, avoiding that big stumbling block one needs to address in making a paper trail doc like this one — how do you get a movie audience to sit through 150 minutes of suited white guys talking?
Gibney moves his story along on the backs of the antagonists themselves, Enron executives Ken Lay, Jeffrey Skilling, Andy Fastow, and to a lesser extent, the late Cliff Baxter, who committed suicide as Enron’s house of cards collapsed. This decision is generally a good one, although it ultimately makes the story lopsided. While we’re treated to a lengthy look at the executives, the victims of Enron’s white-collar crimes are bit players, swept aside in the retelling almost as much as they were in the real story.
A minor storytelling judgment lapse also arises during Enron Energy Services CEO Lou Pai’s subchapter, in which we learn (news flash!) that high-powered executives enjoy the services of strippers. A healthy amount of screen time is spent in a strip club while we learn how this chilly intimidator spent his off hours, a choice that doesn’t work to advance the story or tell us anything.
Overall, Gibney treats his material with a light touch, editorializing in little more than clever musical lead-ins and pithy chapter headers. The most damning commentary Enrondelivers comes straight from the mouths of the executives and traders, via corporate audio and video clips.
In these conversations we hear the nervy arrogance in their voices and understand the hubris with which they justified their evil deeds. These are men who literally (yes, you can hear them) laughed while California burned during 2001’s season of rolling blackouts, actively shutting down power companies to feed on the resulting price spikes.
Enron’s tale of power and corruption brought down by pride and avarice has the makings of great dramatic fiction. With a small army of larger-than life enemies threatening scores of ordinary, everyday people, what’s really missing here is a knight in shining armor, and that may be the most alarming aspect of Enron. The bad guys pillage, the people suffer, and we’re all left with the realization that it can (and likely will) happen again unless watchdogs watch and the rest of us care enough to ask why.