Enron: The smartest guys in federal prison

“Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room”

Magnolia Films

Directed and Written by Alex Gibney

Based on the book by Jeff Elkind and Bethany McLean

Starring: Kenneth Lay, Jeffrey Skilling and Andy Fastow

Unrated/115 minutes

Opened May 20, 2005

Three and a half out of four stars

Veteran documentarian Alex Gibney’s new film, “Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room,” probes the bowels of big business, prizing from the dank corners of its former poster child Enron the sinister, infuriating details of the fallen behemoth’s colossal collapse.

In discussing avarice’s effect on enterprise, Donald Trump once said that you can’t be too greedy. In the cutthroat world of big business, in which one’s future is hinged on his or her drive to amass enormous wealth-to mercilessly snuff out competitors, when necessary-such greed tramples the most basic human scruples.

Under the morally-shaky pretense of making money, otherwise upstanding Enron nine-to-fivers commit all manner of unconscionable acts-including stock fraud, manufacturing an energy crisis and consorting with Bush and Cheney.

Through episodic segments accompanied by sardonic music selections and ironic titles, Gibley and his cadre of insiders and journalists fastidiously unpack the events leading up to Enron’s ruin.

We become intimately acquainted with Ken Lay and Jeff Skilling, the architects (and self-proclaimed “smartest guys in the room”) behind Enron’s staggering innovations and the proverbial rats that tried to abandon the sinking ship. We meet Andy Fastow, who ultimately served as the fall-guy for Enron’s transgressions, as well as the laconic, stripper-loving executive Lou Pai, who incidentally escaped prosecution with hundreds of millions of dollars.

Gibley scathingly depicts this colorful host of characters, which makes it difficult to separate each person from his actions-an ambiguity that permeates the entire film. It’s hard to say whether these men are actually evil. Maybe anybody is capable of anything, given the right circumstances and, more importantly, the right price-but “Enron” holds that these guys did what they did, regardless.

Before foundering, Enron ran the gamut of unsavory business practices-trading invisible stocks, duping stockholders and asserting autocratic control over California’s newly deregulated power.

Deregulation commodifies a typically governmentally controlled resource-such as electricity-freeing it from its bureaucratic shackles. Shares of that resource are auctioned to the highest bidder, usually a big business or a consortium of such conglomerates, which then sells to consumers. In theory, this type of privatization should keep prices low, but the movie explains that Enron manufactured rolling blackouts in California to justify inflated rates (almost three times normal), essentially gouging Californians’ wallets to pad its own bulging collective purse.

One wonders how executives slept at night. Even the most imaginative crime author could not have concocted a more elaborate story. With “Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room” Gibley proves himself a deft chronicler. He tapped the right people, managed to wrench damning information from those individuals privy to it, and consolidated his material into an engaging, galling expos.

Catch this film at The Regency theaters (in Trolley Square) before it leaves. It might be the most important film of the year.

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