Though Enron has become a byword for the corporate chicanery of the last decade, and there’s been lots of news coverage of the duplicitous accounting and horrific practices of the Houston-based company (including the best-selling book by Bethany McLean and Peter Elkind which serves as a major source of this documentary), most Americans are probably still hazy about the precise facts of the scandal. This film by Alex Gibney does a fine job of presenting the story in an accessible, if obviously charged, fashion. One could never accuse it of taking a calm, objective approach to the scandal–it’s an activist film–but under the circumstances that’s quite understandable and defensible. And its attitude isn’t one of stern, righteous indignation–which would certainly be justifiable–as much as of almost bemused amazement that such a grotesque perversion of ethics and propriety could have gone undetected and unpunished for so long.
Of course, Gibney is fortunate in that Enron–not unlike the bureaucracies of twentieth-century totalitarian regimes–left behind a huge archive of its own malfeasance, saving evidence of its own perfidy to such an extent that even frenzied last-minute efforts to purge the files, as it were, came up very short. So part of the material presented here consists of filmed pep rallies given to bolster employee morale by Ken Lay, Jeff Skilling and other executives as the company devised more and more “innovative” means to expand its activities and bolster its balance sheet. (Most notable among the latter was Skilling’s highly imaginative scheme to count future estimated profits as though they were already in hand, thereby camouflaging present losses with prospective gains.) And there are the tapes of those horrifying telephone conversations between company energy traders, joyously manipulating electric production in California to exacerbate the blackout crisis there and so increase Enron’s profits. But these “primary” sources are put into proper context by the clear, crisp narrative delivered without exaggeration by Peter Coyote, news clips, excerpts from interviews with corporate whistleblowers and journalists who covered the scandal, and portions of congressional hearings in which company executives were grilled by members of the U.S. Congress, some of whom had probably profited from the largesse Enron distributed to politicians over the years.
Enron’s story, of course, has become a cautionary tale of how corporate greed can overcome every scruple and circumvent all the trip-wires supposedly designed to detect it early on. (After all, the company couldn’t have flourished, in its duplicitous way, had not the accounting firm of Arthur Anderson, Wall Street brokerages, financial news organizations and governmental watchdog committees been somewhat complicit in the process. (Some, like Anderson, paid a very heavy price.) And Enron was only the tip of the iceberg: WorldCom wasn’t far behind. The tale also grows poignant when some caught up in the operation take their own lives, and thousands of employees discover that they’re not only out of work but that the pension funds they so assiduously invested in company stock, at the encouragement of their own executives, are now totally lost–even though those same executives were pocketing millions as the stock price went south.
One might complain that at times “Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room” comes off as a bit too smart itself, almost smug in its often jokey post-mortem of the company’s excesses. But on the whole it acquits itself remarkably well. And while the film might serve as instructional source in business schools about what not to do, that’s probably too much to hope for. At best it will serve to suggest the sorts of questions outsiders should ask about any corporation’s doings in judging the actualities of its performance.
Good luck in the market! Looks like you’ll need it. But at least this movie is a pretty sure bet.