The new documentary “Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room” opens with a shot of the Enron building in Houston. A church spire wrapped in a banner reading “Jesus Saves” peeks into frame.
That single image calls up multiple meanings: faith fronting business; terrible irony; a real need for salvation. From that single image springs the tale of an empire’s scandalous collapse that invites the viewer to entertain those meanings and many more.
“Enron,” written and directed by Alex Gibney from a book by Fortune writers Bethany McLean and Peter Elkind, spends almost two hours examining the moral and financial bankruptcy of what was America’s seventh largest corporation. Narrated by Peter Coyote (a voice you’ll recognize from other documentaries and commercials), “Enron” is now playing in about two dozen cities across the country.
But “Enron” isn’t just about the recent collapse of a company. It’s also about the corporation’s meteoric rise on account of the ambition—or greed, arrogance and pride, says one interviewee—of its top executives. Ken Lay (chairman of the board), Jeff Skilling (CEO) and Andrew Fastow (CFO) stand center-stage on this human tragedy, which it no doubt is.
Even as this documentary slips into theaters, Fastow has already been sentenced to 10 years in prison, while Lay and Skilling are expected to stand trial in January 2006. Some outcomes, then, are already known, but certain details of this energy giant’s journey will be new to all but its most steadfast followers.
The documentary relies on: interviews with financial analysts, as well as several former Enron employees at various levels; congressional testimony footage; audio from Enron phone calls; brief reenactments; news footage; archival photos of Enron players; video from Enron meetings; videoed skits the company produced for its employees; and a killer soundtrack. Songs include “God Bless the Child (Who Has His Own),” “Son of a Preacher Man,” “That Old Black Magic” and “God’s Away on Business.” These musical touches bring lightheartedness as well as cynical commentary.
Director Gibney gives a brief biographical background for each of the main players. Lay’s father, for example, was a Baptist preacher, and the young Lay dreamed of making it big. He did, becoming an expert in deregulation tactics. And according to Fortune writer Elkind, “He always wrapped business in the cloak of moral rectitude.”
In fact, when Enron’s stock went south in 2001 and the corporation imploded, that wasn’t the first time the boys at Enron had brushed with scandal. The documentary details the company’s 1987 “Valhalla” incident that put two Enron executives in prison.
“Enron” investigates the company’s business tactics like “mark to market,” “pump and dump” and “rank and yank.” For the non-financial types, some of this is hard to follow, but the outcome is nevertheless clear: Enron spreadsheets were fictional documents, and the fact that they passed as legitimate financial statements indicts more than just Lay, Skilling and Fastow. It involves, as the documentary argues, the support (passive or otherwise) of numerous financial analysts and institutions.
Gibney also documents some of the weirder aspects of life at Enron: Skilling’s penchant for extreme vacations to establish a macho boys club at the company; one Enron executive’s love for strip clubs; and the brazen attitude of some Enron traders as the corporation watched its stock soar.
The film touches on Ken Lay’s relationship to the Bush family, but it spends a good deal more time on the company’s involvement in California’s 2001 energy crisis that helped bring about the recall of former governor Gray Davis and election of Arnold Schwarzenegger.
Laced throughout are intriguing narrative nuggets—like Fortune writer McLean’s first story on the possibility that Enron stock was overpriced; like former Enron vice-president Sherron Watkins blowing the whistle on bogus accounting at the company; like Merrill Lynch analyst John Olson turning skeptical about Enron and departing his station shortly thereafter.
“Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room” is no doubt a perspective on the doomed corporation, but its assembly of people and evidence makes a compelling look at what can happen when our moral compass is discarded.
Cliff Vaughn is culture editor for EthicsDaily.com.
MPAA Rating: Unrated. Reviewer’s Note: Includes some brief footage of topless women in a strip club (frequented by one of Enron’s executives), as well as some coarse language used by Enron traders on the phone.
Director: Alex Gibney
Writer: Alex Gibney (based on the book by Bethany McLean and Peter Elkind)
Featuring: Ken Lay, Jeffrey Skilling, Andrew Fastow, Lou Pai, Sherron Watkins.