Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room
"Ask why" was the mantra of one of the most remarkable companies in the history of modern society: Enron. And not one, not even the venerable accounting firm of Arthur Anderson, asked that question. So the little energy company that could amassed billions of dollars through deceptive accounting practices, mainly by stating profit based on future earnings (HFV=hypothetical future value) and shipping losses to offshore shell companies.
Alex Gibney's absorbing documentary, based on the book co-authored by the first prominent whistle blower and Enron executive, Bethany McLean, begins with the tragic concept of the pervasive fatal flaw, hubris, and applies it meticulously to the tragic figures Ken Lay, Andrew Skilling, and Andrew Fastow. Tragic in the sense that those talented executives allowed the company to fall while they lined their pockets with the assets of its 20, 000 employees, countless investors, and the state of California, which suffered mammoth losses due to its new energy deregulation and manipulation of that energy by Enron.
The documentary succeeds in explaining the crimes while lacing the story with just enough drama to make suspenseful the outcome we all know before we view the film: Fastow is doing time, Lay and Skilling await trial, former employees work past their retirement ages because their pensions have been gobbled up by the crimes, and California now regulates its energy but still suffers from massive deficit.
The documentary fails when it manipulates its audience with background songs that dramatize the obvious ironies, e.g.' "Son of a Preacher Man" plays during Lay's biography. Such skewering is almost impossible to avoid once a documentarian picks up a camera and selects the images; what he doesn't have to do is underscore the irony--The players will do it all on their own. It also seems to hold back on the cozy relationship between Lay and the Bush family. Perhaps another time.
Meanwhile, this documentary is compelling viewing of a tragedy about a company, as one of the talking heads describes, that was "a house of cards . . . built over a pool of gasoline." It is enjoyable to see it figuratively torched like the House of Wax.