A film review by Craig J. Koban
ENRON: THE SMARTEST GUYS IN THE
2005, R, 110 mins.
Featuring: Kenneth Lay, Jeff Skilling, Lou Pai, Mike Muckleroy, Sherron Watkins, Red. James Nuter, Bethany McLean and Peter Elkind and others
Narrated by Peter Coyote
Based on the book, The Smartest Guys in the Room: The Amazing Rise and Scandalous Fall of Enron, by Bethany McLean and Peter Elkind
"We are the good guys. We are on the side of the angels."
- Former ENRON CEO Jeff Skilling
Anyone who thinks that movies cannot, in any way shape or form, derive strong emotional responses from their audiences clearly has not seen the new documentary ENRON: THE SMARTEST GUYS IN THE ROOM. This is one of the most exasperating, maddening, vile, reprehensible and vehemently putrid films that I have ever sat through.
The film is seemingly a two-hour endurance test to see if I was capable to take in and absorb its chronicle of the rise and fall of one of the most profitable (and now dubious and notorious) corporations of the last 25 years. Oddly enough, I mean all of this as a glorious compliment.
This is not just a dark tale of the seedier underbelly of common human nature. This documentary dares those that watch it to come out of it and still have faith in the American capitalist and democratic system. After sitting through the film and seeing its infuriating and fascinating portrayal of the more morbid characteristics of civics and basic morals, I can say wholeheartedly that my faith has not only been crushed, it has been lost altogether. ENRON is one of those inane (and frightening) works that desperately cries out through every one of its 110 minutes, “How and why did this happen??!!”
If anything, I have come to one simple conclusion after watching this thorough, hypnotically involving and intriguing documentary about the Enron scandal – it was clearly one of the worst acts of terrorism of the last few decades. Now, I am not trying to engage in any sort of wild and morose hyperbole by saying that, nor am I trying to quantify the number of lives actually lost by the scandal to those of recent terrorist attacks both in America and abroad. I must make a clear delineation here – The Enron scandal was not an act of terrorism in the commonly held definition of the word. It was an act of economic terrorism that completely and utterly ruined the lives of tens of thousands of people. This, of course, all occurred while the irrepressible, uncaring, completely self-interested and monstrously greedy CEO’s that ran the company made off with hundreds of millions of dollars in their pockets before the ship that was their company sank into terrible fiduciary waters and left all those under them penniless. In these terms, the costs levied to the people - who worked their hardest for a company that lived a fraudulent life for decades, all willfully under its management - is utterly incalculable.
Alex Gibney’s brilliant and intoxicating documentary tells this ultimate story of fraud and malfeasance on an enormous scale. However, one thing that viewers should take out of the film is that this is not a polite and modest dissection into a political and economic corporation that started simply, rose to incredible heights and then fell. No, ENRON is about crooks, albeit in white-collar form. There is not doubt that the management of Enron occupy the lower order of thieves that do not, in any way, separate themselves from a lowly pick pocket or common thief that would break into one’s home and ransack it for their riches.
The most deplorable aspect of the documentary is that, on basic precepts, the men that ran Enron were crooks that pick pocketed and looted on a grand scale. Consider – what is so different about a person robbing you of all of your valued possessions at home in a burglary and what the CEO’s of Enron did? In their case, they built the company up through the years on systemically fraudulent foundations, made its workers invest millions into the company while making them think that things were “okay", and then right before the company went belly-up, they cashed in all of their stocks and robbed these associates and shareholders of millions in holdings and retirement funds so they could get off fine. One CEO parachuted out of the company’s collapse with over $100 million dollars and now lives the high life. One lowly worker, as revealed near the end of the film, has a retirement package through the company that is now conservatively estimated at only $1200. This is just plain wrong.
How the hell did all of this happen? Enron was, at its height of economic power, the seventh biggest company in the US. It was formed in 1985 by the merger of Houston Natural Gas and InterNorth and was engineered by then Huston Naural Gas CEO Kenneth Lay – Corporate Crook #1. Originally, Enron was involved in the transmission and distribution of electricity and gas throughout the US and the development and operation of power plants and pipelines worldwide. However, the company grew profitable fast through marketing, promotion, and, as the documentary pains to point out, shady stock dealings.
Within no time, Enron was named “America’s most innovative company” by Fortune Magazine for five consecutive years from 1996 to 2000 and was very high on Fortune’s 2000 list of the “Best Companies to work for in America”. At its absolute height the company had 21,000 working for it and had a stock price of over $100 dollars a share. Yet, by the time the company filed for bankruptcy in 2001, its shares plummeted to a measly 30 cents. A series of scandals involving irregular and, let’s face it, phony-to-their-core accounting procedures involving it and its accounting firm Arthur Anderson - Corporate Crook(s) # 2 - caused Enron to undergo the largest bankruptcy in US history.
The fall of Enron not only hit the company hard, but all of its partners as well. Arthur Anderson was placed on trial for obstruction of justice charges, and rightfully so. Former Enron CEO, Andy Fastow - Corporate Crook # 3 - one of the masterminds behind the company’s deplorable complex of questionable accounting practices, was indicted on November of 2001 on 78 counts of fraud, money laundering, and conspiracy. Two other high ranking CEO’s, most notably Jeff Skilling - Corporate Crook# 4 - and Kenneth Lay, were both arrested and indicted on fraud charges and their respective trials have yet to commence. Lay in particular pleaded not guilty on July of 2004 and his plea, with all of the evidence that the documentary displays, would be similar to Al Qaeda pleading “not guilty” to the bombings of 9/11.
What makes this film primarily such an immensely volatile experience is in watching Skilling and Lay present themselves as media darlings and consummate and trustworthy business men who were only out, as they asserted, for the best interests of their company. Yet, what is abundantly clear is that both were cunning and backhanded liars and contemptible criminals who cashed in on millions of dollars of Enron stock, right before it collapsed, and left everyone else below them with absolutely nothing. 21,000 workers were left without money, jobs and pensions. The most shocking thing to accept in watching this film is that, make no question about it, Silling and Lay seem in on it from the very beginning, despite what their testimony laid forth at subsequent Congressional hearings said to the contrary.
To see Skilling state repeatedly that he was out of the loop with what was happening with Enron only makes me want to see him rot prison that much more. These cowards built up their company on a lie, grossly over inflating its worth and profits when it was, in fact, billions of dollars in debt every year and concealed this to its workers and shareholders through heinous acts of fraud. Enron was the ultimate con game, and for these “leaders” to not know anything about it seems as egregious as it does incredulous. C’mon, whom do they think they were fooling here?
ENRON: THE SMARTEST GUYS IN THE ROOM is a daring expose about how this financial crapstorm started. It connects the dots and creates a picture so effortlessly that even a layperson could understand it, which is one of its singular strengths. This documentary is a concise, engrossing, revealing, and succinct piece of cinematic editorial filmmaking, and it does an exemplary job of condensing decades of history into one lean and neat two-hour film. It’s a noteworthy achievement when a filmmaker can clarify a mess as convoluted as the Enron scandal and make it palatable and easy to digest. Actually, scratch that last comment – the film is told in simple and broad strokes, but is such an infuriating documentary that it is anything but easy to digest. More than any film of recent memory, I actually felt like throwing things at the screen while watching it. Few films have that sort of visceral power over its audience, and ENRON is a masterpiece of drawing out all of our pent up hostilities about one scandal and letting us cathartically release it all. This is an absorbing look at the growing black hole that Enron created through perpetual greed, arrogance, and power – a parable with limitless power. ENRON is a film that is essential viewing in our socio-political climate, and is a metaphorical dagger in the hearts of those that still have faith in common human decency, fair play, and honesty.
So, how in the world did Enron pull off the biggest corporate fraud of the century and get away with it for years? Well, the documentary lays it all out rather well, which itself is narrated by Peter Coyote and based strongly on the best selling book of the same name by Fortune Magazine's Bethany McLean and Peter Elkind. Through a serious of great archive footage, video montages, reconstructed footage, a wealth of interviews, and Congressional hearing footage, the film spells out the evil plan of Enron. In order to keep its stock price soaring through the roof, the company essentially fabricated good quarterly returns that were…well…complete BS. Another of its tactics was to use an accounting practice called “market to market” which, if I follow the film right, meant that if Enron began a venture that might make $100 million in five years, it could claim that $100 million as income right now in the present. Call me nuts, but am I the only one here responding with a “Huh?”
The was one other highly disgraceful tactic that Enron utilized to stay on top. They created completely bogus offshore accounts and moved their losses from their books to them. In one incredible moment of the film, a huge schematic diagram is displayed that traces the debt of Enron to these phony companies. It should be of no surprise that they have equally bogus and erroneous names like M. Smart (or Maxwell Smart) and M. Yass (or My A…ahhhh…ya get the point). One particular company name should have been named in a copyright infringement lawsuit by the lawyers of Lucasfilm - it was called "Jedi".
Ultimately, it would take an inconceivable amount of naivety to think that both Skilling and Lay had nothing to do with or had any preconceived knowledge of what Enron was perpetrating on a yearly basis. Consequently, since they clearly were in on the scam, they should be held accountable. Their trials do not commence until 2006, and considering the length of time between the fraud exposure and the trial date, it clearly seems like too long a period for my tastes. One moment in particular brought me as close to vomiting as anything I’ve seen all year. During an amazing in-company video, Skilling tells all of his associates and shareholders to be completely optimistic and invest everything they had into the company, which was doomed from the beginning. Then what did Skilling do? He quickly resigns and cashes in his $200 million in Enron stocks. The film constantly makes analogies to the Titanic, and for apt reasons – Skilling, unlike the captain of that doomed vessel, obviously did not go down with his ship. Rather, he made off with the precious cargo and left all others to drown and die a slow financial death. How deplorable, indeed.
Some films make us laugh. Others make us cry. Some are capable of being largely uplifting tales of accomplishment against insurmountable odds. However, a small few can literally make you feel ill watching them. ENRON: THE SMARTEST GUYS IN THE ROOM is a work of that latter category. I am usually not a hot-tempered type when it comes to the movies, and seldom have I left a theatre feeling so upset that I felt like punching a hole in a wall with complete disdain and contempt (Okay, maybe BAD BOYS 2 conjured up those nasty vibes). Yet, no film this year, or for the last little while for that matter, has made my blood boil as much as ENRON did and for that – in some sort of sick and twisted way – the film is one of the most riveting and entrancing of 2005. It's an ingeniously conceived work, yet painful to sit through.
Still not convinced that this film would make you boo and hiss fervently? Well, consider this: One Enron economist, who helped the company work for years at hiding its shady and questionable account numbers, cashed in over $300 million dollars in Enron stock two years before its collapse and now lives on a lush acreage, with all of his fortune intact, and resides with the female stripper that he apparently met and fell in love with during a company business trip. A few years later, the company collapsed and tens of thousands of people lost everything that they had invested in a corporation that they trusted their confidence and lives with. To humbly quote one legal analyst in the film, “That is simply not fair.”