If you’re like me, you might have a vague idea of what happened with Enron just from watching the news, but this documentary will help you understand the down and dirty of what went wrong—and it’s mind-blowing to say the least. Enron, the seventh largest company in America, went bankrupt within weeks, losing $70 billion dollars and putting 20,000 people out of work. Those left unemployed lost $3 billion in retirement and pension funds. And this was all started by a single reporter who asked the obvious question, “How do you make your money?”
I was quite surprised that this wasn’t a boring documentary about all the financial mumbo jumbo and legal gibberish of the scandal. Instead the filmmakers focus on the human story, presenting a morality tale of greed and tragedy using actual footage and phone conversations from inside the company (and a pretty nice soundtrack featuring Tom Waits, Billie Holiday and the Red Hot Chili Peppers). You won’t believe some of the management schemes and accounting fraud the Enron execs got away with, from blatantly making up profits to actually shutting down power grids in California to earn a quick buck. (All you West Coast readers remember the rolling blackouts of 2001? Well, you can thank Ken Lay and Jeff Skilling for that.) By the time the credits rolled, I was flabbergasted as to how something like this could go unnoticed for so long and seething with anger that those in charge have still largely gone unpunished.
While ENRON: THE SMARTEST GUYS IN THE ROOM does a good job of explaining the scandal in depth and drawing in the audience emotionally, it does run a bit long. The main point of the film, that the scumbags in charge were lying about profits and keeping money for themselves, is stretched out over two hours, making the movie feel repetitive. (Honestly, most of the info presented is stuff you can get from the Internet.) And since the filmmakers can’t actually talk to the imprisoned CEOs themselves, they try to attribute some ridiculous motivation for their criminal behavior—my favorite being that Jeff Skilling was a nerd as a kid and wanted to be rich just so everyone would think he was cool. There’s also a pretty ludicrous attempt to use the classic Milgram psychological experiment to prove that Enron actually made its employees evil (which will make anyone who’s taken Psychology 101 roll their eyes). Cheap tactics like this only hurts the effectiveness of an otherwise informative and important documentary.
Commentary by writer-director Alex Gibney: Gibney goes very in-depth on how making a documentary differs from regular cinema and what he was trying to accomplish by exposing “cutthroat capitalism”. I also enjoyed his explanation of the significance of the film’s soundtrack. (Tom Waits fits this film perfectly.)
The Making of ENRON: THE SMARTEST GUYS IN THE ROOM (13:23): Since this is a documentary and there’s no set or real “scenes” to go behind, director Gibney simply talks about the editing process and why he chose to include the most “important” parts. There are also some interviews with the authors of the original book.
Deleted Scenes (19:29): More of the same...Ken Lay is a lying bastard and deserves to be shot. There’s also some funny footage of ex-California governor Gray Davis whining about being “recalled” by Arnold Schwarzenegger because of Enron.
Where Are They Now? (2:43): A quick update on all the major players in the scandal, most of whom are thankfully getting cornholed in jail as they await their trial dates.
Conversations with Bethany McLean and Peter Elkind (12:39): Some raw footage with the authors of the original book. Most of this was shown already in the movie.
Highlights from the Enron Show (12:11): A promotional piece from HDNet with more interviews with McLean and Elkind. This one focuses more on the role of the journalists and how they investigated the scandal.
Firesign Theatre: The Fall of Enron (3:11): Some humorous video of a radio show doing a mock opera about Enron. Quick and harmless.
Alex Gibney Reads The Enron Skits (4:28): In the movie you’ll see one of these “skits” that the Enron executives would perform to boost morale and mock their critics. Here, director Gibney reads some of the ones that didn’t make it in the film. I wish they would’ve hired actors to act them out, because watching a guy sit there and read for five minutes was pretty boring.
Enron Cartoons: A gallery of political cartoons mocking the Enron scandal. Some are funnier than others, but it’s definitely worth a look.
Fortune Magazine Articles: The original exposés that brought the company down. I thought it was pretty ironic that for years Fortune listed Enron as its Most Admired Company until everything went to hell in a handcart.
There’s also some Trailers for other HDNet films, including Steven Soderbergh’s new experimental flick BUBBLE, as well as some very helpful Internet Links and Suggested Readings that can keep you up to date on all things Enron.