Alex Gibney expertly captures the lies and fall of Enron.

Scoundrel Time 

Alex Gibney expertly captures the lies and fall of Enron.

Alex Gibney's Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room is a thoroughly professional, frequently spectacular piece of muckraking. But any American who hopes to watch this portrait of unfettered corporate greed, cynical lust for power, and outrageous deception without going postal about an hour into the thing would do well to bring tranquilizers. Citizens of Houston are advised to double the dose.

At the risk of being a spoilsport, I feel duty-bound to report on the film's most satisfying moments right here at the outset. The images of former Enron executives Kenneth Lay, Jeffrey Skilling and Andrew Fastow being hauled into assorted courthouses with their grubby hands cuffed behind their backs may provide scant comfort to the 20,000 Enron employees who lost their jobs and their hard-earned savings in what one awestruck reporter here calls "the corporate crime of the century." But it's something. If there's any justice in the world, Enron's multimillionaire thieves will now be condemned to spend 15 to 20 painting their former underlings' houses, driving their kids (and grandkids) to school and cleaning their toilets.

For the primary source material of this exhaustive -- and exhausting -- documentary, Gibney relied on one of the best books to date about the Enron scandal, The Smartest Guys in the Room, by Fortune magazine reporters Bethany McLean and Peter Elkind. On the page, the story of the company's destructive excesses, arrogance and vast delusion is shocking. On the screen, it's strangely hilarious in places and even more galling than it was in print -- not only because the living, breathing, lying presence of the villains is so odious but also because Gibney (who took a former secretary of state to task in The Trials of Henry Kissinger) has done a lot of additional shoe-leather reporting. On the advice of counsel, neither Lay nor Skilling would submit to interviews (though the filmmaker says Skilling was willing), but Gibney has dug up new dirt, thanks to ex-employees and a fascinating mélange of clips from secret Enron videotapes, phone conversations between Enron traders gleefully manipulating the California energy market amid the rolling blackouts of 2001, and oddities like his view of an Arthur Andersen forklift carting away a ton of shredded Enron financial records.

Meticulously researched and scrupulously edited, Smartest Guys takes pains to point out that, while pervasive, the Enron scandal did not swallow every executive on the ladder. We see that at least one of them, Cliff Baxter, suffered from sufficient pangs of conscience to commit suicide. Just as depressing, Gibney explains in no uncertain terms the complicity of some of America's top banks and brokerage houses -- Chase, Morgan, Merrill Lynch, CitiBank, the list goes on -- in what one skeptical market analyst terms "synergistic corruption." That led, inevitably, to the collapse of Enron's illusory house of cards.

Part financial thriller, part casebook in chicanery, part black comedy, Smartest Guys is the deepest, darkest kind of cautionary tale. It warns us not only about the dirty fuel that can get inside the economic engine of the most powerful nation on Earth, but also about how that nation just might lose its soul.

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