"Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room" - Fact or Fiction?
- Thursday, April 28, 2005
Release Date: April 22, 2005 (limited release)
Rating: Not Rated
Run Time: 110 min.
Director: Alex Gibney
When it comes to “documentaries,” I’m starting to feel like Pontius Pilate. What in the world is truth? And can anyone – or will they ever – separate fact from these increasingly fictionalized works that we’re supposed to swallow hook, line and sinker?
Founded in 1985, Enron went on to become the seventh largest corporation in America. After its demise in 2001, some 29,000 people lost their jobs and $2 billion had been lost in pensions. Enron’s top executives had cashed in $116 million in stock and taken out $55 million in bonuses. Few of them will ever be indicted – although several have been convicted and others await trial. It’s a story that had us all riveted, and one that had us all shaking our heads, saying “There, but for the grace of God, go I.”
Based on the book by Fortune magazine reporters Bethany McLean and Peter Elkind, the film opens with the suicide of Enron executive Cliff Baxter in January, 2002, then backtracks. According to this version, company traders were accused of padding their accounts in 1987, but Chairman Ken Lay, the son of a Baptist preacher, ignored the facts – because his almighty traders were making money for the company. This, we are led to believe, paved the way for more egregious abuses on down the road.
When Lay hired Jeffrey Skilling to be the new CEO, the film insists, things really heated up. Skilling is presented as a risk-taking, rule-breaking maverick who shrewdly convinced accounting giant Arthur Andersen to agree to a special kind of accounting, called “mark-to-market,” which allowed profits to be posted long before they were ever made, based on the slimmest of predictions. This, in turn, drove up stock prices. Meanwhile, Enron was hiding its real debt in shell companies and masterminding the California energy crisis – all for great profit. They also convinced employees to invest their entire pension into the company, a move that is unwise under any circumstances.
Peppered with side stories, like Lou Lung Pai, the executive who made a dubious $250 million, quit, then married one of the strippers he loved to frequent (after committing adultery and impregnating her), the film attempts to be comical and even is, at times – especially with its snappy score, used to great effect. It also illustrates (actually over-illustrates), what it is trying to convey, as if the uneducated masses watching this need that sort of thing to help them make the tenuous connections. I’m sure they will. For example, images of gambling tables accompany voiceovers about oil trading, portraying a legitimate industry as something shady – and just a poker chip away from illegality. Director Alex Gibney also spices up the film with shots of strip clubs (including full upper nudity), when he talks about Pai’s predilection. However, what legitimate illustrations he could have included, such as interviews with former employees, are mostly ignored. Now there’s the real story.
Even without the constant George W. Bush bashing, you can’t help but feel that this film has a major agenda – and that is to persuade us that corporate America is, at its core, corrupt. But Gibney’s hatred of Bush is truly tangible. With scant more “evidence” than the fact that then-Governor Bush knew Lay (he called him “Kenny Boy”), the film hammers away at a point about Bush “helping to secure funding” for a subsidiary called Enron International – as if networking is illegal or immoral. In fact, Michael Moore style, we’re never told what “helping” actually means, so we have nothing to judge this “information” on.
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