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"Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room" - Fact or Fiction?

  • Annabelle Robertson Entertainment Critic
  • 2005 29 Apr
"Enron:  The Smartest Guys in the Room" -  Fact or Fiction?

Release Date:  April 22, 2005 (limited release)
Rating:  Not Rated
Genre:  Documentary
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.

Naturally, Gibney conveniently neglects to mention Enron’s financial contributions to former President Clinton and his cronies.  He also bypasses the minor little point that Enron’s rise to power – not to mention the majority of its abuses – occurred during all eight years of the Clinton administration.  All irrelevant facts, I’m sure.  But Bush having a nickname for Ken Lay, now that’s crucial information, right there!  Send him straight to prison!

Without anything more to use as slander, the film leaves Bush alone until the end of the film.  It returns with a vengeance, however, to imply that the entire deregulation of electricity and its subsequent crisis was, if not wholly engineered by the Bush administration, at least condoned by it – all in order to place “their” candidate into the California governor’s seat.  Now, correct me if I’m wrong, but was it President Bush or President Clinton who had big buddies in Hollywood?  Because I’m quite sure that if George W. had actually been controlling this gig, he would have picked someone just a little, say, Republican? … American? … educated? … for the job.  But poor Governor Gray Davis.  He was so innocent, and a mere pawn in the hands of Big Bad Bush and Big Business.  Please save us, Big Government!

That many of my esteemed film-critic colleagues are raving about this film, thus assuming that everything they see onscreen is truth, is definitely troubling, but not surprising.  However, my lawyer background has me asking far too many questions – especially after watching “Farenheit 911” immediately followed by “Farenhype 911,” which was positively enlightening.  Who would believe that you could fabricate so many facts and twist so many statements?  At least that guy didn’t get an Oscar nomination, but one just may be down the road for this film.  What a scary thought.

When it comes to Enron, there was a lot of wrongdoing going on, and I’d definitely love to know the facts.  Somehow, however, I just can’t believe these are they.

AUDIENCE:  Adults only


  • Drugs/Alcohol Content:   Various scenes with people drinking throughout film, including several in a bar and several extended shots of a strip club.
  • Language/Profanity:  Approximately 25 obscenities and profanities, including a dozen uses of “f-”.
  • Sexual Content/Nudity:  Several extended shots of strip clubs with topless women (full frontal nudity) wearing g-strings dancing and gyrating on laps of patrons; voiceover describes Enron executive’s regular visits to strip clubs then later, recounts that he divorced his wife and married a stripper who was pregnant with his illegitimate child.
  • Violence:  Men engage in extreme off-road motorcycle biking with verbal voiceover about injuries, some of which are serious.