Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room
A Guest Review by Patrick Somerville
Director: Alex Gibney. Documentary. Profile of the rise and fall of the infamous energy-trading corporation. Narrated by Peter Coyote. Featuring Kenneth Lay, Jeffrey Skilling, Andrew Fastow, and Lou Pai. Screenplay: Alex Gibney (based on the book The Smartest Guys in the Room: The Amazing Rise and Scandalous Fall of Enron by Bethany McLean and Peter Elkind).
Sometimes, your friends take such pity on you, as your website shrivels and withers on the vine, that they supply their own reviews. Here, hot off the press, is a report by guest columnist Patrick Somerville, whose stunning and hilarious collection of short fiction, titled Trouble and the Shadowy Death Blow, will appear from Vintage Press in 2006.

In this informative, quick, but tonally bizarre documentary following the collapse of the Enron corporation, director Alex Gibney assigns himself the very difficult task of telling a story about people who are extremely powerful, extremely wealthy, and extremely boring. The sheer import of Enron's bankruptcy was a form of natural disaster for the American economy, with repercussions all over the world, not least in Sacramento, California. Unfortunately, the film, while entertaining and overflowing with good, Evil-Empire-condemning information, never quite manages to bring that overwhelming force into focus.

Inasmuch as being "the smartest guy in the room" equates to success in the energy marketplace, recording "possible" or "projected" profits as though they actually exist, the film's villains—Ken Lay, Jeffrey Skilling, Lou Pai, and Andy Fastow—are really smart. Inasmuch as it entails charm, charisma, and the kind of mysterious power surrounding a frightening billionaire like, say, Rupert Murdoch, the Enron executives frankly come off as duds. If there is some secluded island where all of the world's wealthiest corporate executives get together to party and hang out and play beach volleyball (there probably is), it's hard not to imagine Ken Lay running around with too much sunscreen on his nose and a really outdated pair of jams tied off well above his navel.

Then there is the "enigmatic" Lou Pai, one of the only higher-ups able to foresee the bad future and escape while Enron's stock prices were still unrealistically bloated. The body of the film is a series of mini-biographies; Lou Pai is first introduced as a kind of mad genius, in charge of a highly speculative new division of Enron, for which he grossed, during his tenure, over a hundred million dollars. But there's always a dark, seedy underbelly, and the film does not hesitate to amplify it for all it's worth during the Lou Pai "Chapter": the music turns dark, the screen flickers with sinister strobe effects, and we see video of the evil Mr. Pai speaking in slow motion. Did he kill someone? No. Did he gleefully participate in the My Lai massacre? No. Did he fund communists on the side? No.

Worse: he liked strippers.

So much so that he left his wife for one. Then he bought a bunch of Colorado and moved to a castle in Hawaii. All in all, this is a fairly predictable, boyish and boring form of mercenary behavior. And yet Pai, as movie subject-matter, is by far the most interesting of the cadre.

The film's tone is sometimes distracting, and perhaps it is these atmospheric inconsistencies which make it difficult to cooperate wholeheartedly with its ideas. For example, during a long segment devoted to the wacky adventure vacations Enron brass liked to use to initiate their young pups, proving to whoever was listening that they really were badass New Business messiahs, we get a few undoubtedly legitimate photographs and video clips of an off-road motorcycle tour. Still, the bulk of this sequence uses strange, choppy, stock footage of what looks like motocross racing; I'm not sure whether or not we are actually expected to believe that it's Jeff Skilling pulling off that wicked double flip, but what seems sure is that we are supposed to believe in the bogus danger of these trips, and therefore be moved to appreciate the culture of egoism and machismo that permeated Enron during its rise to power.

Far more convincing on that front are the transcripts and audio recordings of Enron traders, who become, ultimately, the real stars of the film. "The smartest guys in the room" are Ken Lay and Jeff Skilling, whose offices towered over the Enron trading floor; down on the floor itself, a frantic mob of egomaniacal young businesspeople, none of whom apparently had anything resembling a soul or a conscience (or, at the very least, some kind of business ethics handbook), were busy orchestrating the California energy crisis by shutting down power plants under false pretenses and selling electricity for ten times its value. On top of that, we hear them joking around about it, and laughing, and loving themselves for their intelligence. We hear traders hoping against hope that Ken Lay will be appointed Secretary of Energy by the Bush administration for the insider potential, and later, one trader expressing his wish for all of California to just fall away into the sea; presumably, a dollar a death would be worth it.

Hearing Jeff Skilling (who must, by the way, have begun some kind of hair regrowth treatment in the late 90s) subsequently blame the energy crisis on a lack of deregulation in California is pure gold. I found myself most excited by the distilled representations of greed and twisted business rhetoric. In the end, it's worth paying to see Enron if only to hear the smarmy vanity with which the traders conduct their company's affairs, thus unceremoniously sticking it to millions of people on the other side of the country. And while the film itself tries desperately to amplify that sense of disgust and outrage, it never quite transcends the feeling of a really long episode of Unsolved Mysteries. Granted, though, it's still an episode I would watch; Robert Stack can save nearly any descent into hell. B

Academy Award Nominations:
Best Documentary Feature

Other Awards:
Independent Spirit Awards: Best Documentary Feature

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