Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 26 February, 2006, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 26 February, 2006, 12:00am

Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room

Director: Alex Gibney

The film: As the camera swirls over Enron's monolithic glass tower in Houston, a Mephisto-like voice is heard repeating, 'What the hell is he building in there?' Given the severity of the issue it seeks to address - the way energy giant Enron collapsed in 2001 in what was by then the largest case of corporate bankruptcy in American history - Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room begins in a peculiarly comical fashion. This opening sequence, however, matches perfectly what is to follow in Alex Gibney's documentary: the way Enron crashed and burned is farcical to the point of unbelievable.

Based on the book of the same name by journalists Bethany McLean and Peter Elkind - who were pivotal in the revelations that exposed Enron as a financial black hole built on financial irregularities and excessively overcooked account books - The Smartest Guys provided staggering evidence of the corruption and immorality that drove the company's self-proclaimed path to become 'The World's Leading Company'. Interweaving congressional hearings, interviews, revelatory memos, in-house videos and taped conversations among the company's traders, the documentary uncovers how the company embodies neo-liberalism at its worst: Enron preaches 'a new economic religion' in which the marketplace is sacrosanct, and a ruthless cut-throat pursuit of Mammon - both with its competitors, and also among its employees - the sole commandment.

When two Enron traders are found to have brought in enormous profits with fraud, Enron's founding chairman (and Bush confidant) Kenneth Lay sent them a telex, asking them to 'please make us more millions'. Chief executive Jeffrey Skilling (far right, with Lay) played himself in a spoof video, waxing lyrical about the fictional Hypothetical Future Values, in which accountants imagine a rosy future for the firm and have it in the books as fact. (It's not so far from the truth: Enron's growth was built on accounting methods that recorded profits ahead of the time the money was actually earned.)

And then there were the notorious recordings which showed the company's traders gloating about the billions they earned out of California's misery during the electric blackouts in 2000 and 2001. ('We'll definitely retire by the time we are 30,' one said; 'Burn, baby, burn' was the response of another when news filtered in about hill fires threatening power lines in the state.)

The documentary is a sharp indictment of corporate America and the greed-is-good individualism that shapes the 1980s turbo-capitalism. This is a human story, in which conformity brings people to adhere to practices that are obviously self-serving and infinitely corrupt.

What's more telling is how Enron directors and employees distance themselves from the mess, speaking disapprovingly of the chaos as if they were not part of the money-run. It's proof that hypocrisy never dies.

The extras: A wealth of bonus features exists - a making-of featurette, more interviews with McLean and Elkind, and Gibney reading out cynical skits Enron executives produced to amuse themselves and their underlings.

The verdict: A thrilling ride through a world of bottomless greed and shameless manipulation - if only it were a work of fiction.