By turns amazing, amusing and appalling in ways that recall Michael Moore at his most sardonically outraged, “Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room” earns props simply for clarifying a dauntingly complex tale of financial catastrophe fueled by wanton hubris. Helmer Alex Gibney’s unabashedly entertaining yet scrupulously detailed doc should generate sufficient media coverage — on financial and op-ed pages as well as in entertainment sections — to draw an audience. Given continuing interest in the still-unfolding scandal, theatrical biz (and, eventually, homevid sales) could be unusually brisk.
Pic depicts prodigious rise and precipitous fall of Houston-based Enron, which had been ranked as America’s seventh-largest corporation before collapsing in 2001. Drawing heavily from the 2003 bestseller of the same name co-written by Fortune magazine reporters Bethany McLean and Peter Elkind, Gibney expands upon source material with reportage of subsequent revelations and indictments, TV coverage of Congressional hearings, and scads of newly filmed first-person accounts.
Some might complain Gibney is a tad too facile in his interlacing of speculation, stock footage and sometimes jokey imagery — all linked by pop tunes, rapid-fire editing and Peter Coyote’s understated narration — to connect the dots. But the flashy style tends to enhance, not obscure, this absorbing account of a firm that metastasized from natural gas pipeline company to overgrown, underfinanced behemoth.
Although they declined to be interviewed by Gibney, former Enron execs Ken Lay and Jeff Skilling (currently awaiting trial in Houston on fraud charges) gradually emerge as stars of pic, thanks to their frequent (and sometimes inadvertently revealing) appearances in news footage, C-SPAN clips and corporate audio and videotapes. Latter material, the sort of treasure trove most documentarians can only dream of uncovering, includes videos of morale-boosting speeches, acquisition announcements and — no kidding! — comedy skits originally designed for employees-only viewing.
One of the many darkly comical highlights in “Enron” is a corporate-approved comedy sketch designed to celebrate the marvel of mark-to-market accounting, which Skilling introduced to the company. Under Skilling’s interpretation of SEC rules, pic explains, Enron could cite a new endeavor — say, a power plant or a pipeline — and immediately project millions of dollars in potential profits from the deal on an earnings report. Trouble is, the only way to paper over the negative cash flow was to borrow, heavily, from banks and investment firms.
Comic relief abounds throughout the pic, particularly when Gibson focuses on Lou Pai, a Skilling lieutenant with an unseemly fondness for strippers. Some juxtapositions of images and music are too clever by half, and a few illustrative sight gags — including, at one point, a quick cut to a massive bag stenciled with a dollar sign — border on the juvenile. Pic is at its sharpest, and cuts deepest, when it allows the subjects to hang themselves with their own words and actions.
Perhaps the most jaw-dropping, mind-blowing moment in “Enron” occurs when Lay, eager to rally the troops weeks before Enron’s bankruptcy declaration, reads written questions from the audience at a company gathering. In response to Lay’s rosy predictions of future growth and stock-price recovery, an employee queries: “Are you on crack?” (Spike Lee “quotes” this stranger-than-fiction incident in “She Hate Me.”) Lay actually reads the question aloud — and then laughs.
Audiotapes are employed to illuminate darker aspects of scandal. While images of brush fires raging out of control throughout California play onscreen, the soundtrack crackles with predatory Enron traders phoning each other to brag about plans to manufacture the 2000-01 energy crisis throughout the state — mostly through power-line congestion and selective shut-downs of power plants — in the hope of raising prices by gaming the deregulated energy market.
Gibney suggests that, for an unconscionably long period, Enron remained unfettered by federal oversight agencies because of an under-the-table, quid pro quo agreement between President Bush and the Enron exec he famously nicknamed “Kenny Boy.” But the speculation doesn’t end there: Pic points to a May 2001 meeting Ken Lay had with Arnold Schwarzenegger, and hints that Enron may have enabled Schwarzenegger to politically exploit an energy crisis that Enron helped cause in the first place.
“Enron” also includes on-camera interviews with several innocent bystanders, including former Enron exec Mike Muckleroy (who’s credited with saving the company in 1987 after duplicitous traders took one too many risks) and corporate whistleblower Sherron Watkins. The most affecting testimony comes from Rev. James Nutter, pastor of Houston’s Palmer Memorial Episcopal Church, who counseled many Enron employees before and after the company’s collapse. Palmer’s account of driven workers who speak of being “devoured by the company” adds a spiritual perspective usually neglected in accounts of corporate meltdowns.