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:: Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room

Greed is good, they say – ask why. They say life is stranger than fiction. Well, after watching Alex Gibney’s Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room, you might well be forgiven if you said that life is even stranger than the Yule Log cake mum kept in the freezer twelve days after Christmas. Here in this insightful documentary, we have a rare glimpse into one of history’s biggest business scandals. It is the story of how a company fall victim to the usual suspects of human failings – greed, lies, ego, and lots and lots of videotapes. In this ‘absurd theatre of Greek-like tragedy’, the actors from Enron are Ken Lay – the son of a poor Baptist minister, Jeff Skilling – a once pudgy, bright student, Lou Pai – the stripper-obsessed womanizer, and Andy Fastow – the enterprising failure and eventual scapegoat for Enron, just to name a few. With characters as colourful as these, you wonder if Death of a Salesman was the best Arthur Miller could have produced.

Based on Fortune reporters Bethany McLean and Peter Elkind’s best-selling book The Smartest Guys in the Room, this documentary employs a chapter-driven – and you might even say subtly sardonic – business-styled narrative that carefully traces the history of these main characters, leading up to the point whereby they end up being on an Enron ship of fools, coffin and disaster. The captain of the Enron ship: Ken Lay. However it was Skilling who was the main driving force behind it all. With the adoption of a ruthless ‘Darwinian’ business philosophy, a corporate strategy of mark-to-market, which allowed them to disguise their debts as profits, and a relentless ability to ‘make-believe and act’, Enron became America’s seventh largest company.

Exploiting a California energy crisis, coupled with the inclusion of Fastow, and not forgetting ‘help’ from powerful connections such as the Bush family, Enron persists in dominating the economy. On one side of camp, you have its executives walking away with over one billion dollars. On the other, you have employees losing everything. You do the math. In fact, the injustice is quite incalculable. In the end, it only took McLean’s Fortune article “Is Enron Overpriced?” and a whistle-blower to bring about a domino effect that would eventually topple Enron’s ‘house of cards’.

Gibney’s documentary respectably charts the details and events that led to the Enron demise. To a certain extent, it does well to steer away from the ‘Michael Moore over-populated territory of politics’ and have its focus remain faithfully on ‘the real-world capitalism’ theme instead. Moreover, it also does well to keep from being too biased and preachy. (I say this because Lay and Skilling’s side of story are unfortunately missing, due to legal issues). And apart from the normal documentary dosage of information and misfortune, Gibney even throws in a few laughs here and there for good measure. At times, you get the feeling you are a detective leafing through an Enron secret file, uncovering all of its misdeeds. In that way, you do feel detached whilst reading the information. But, as the Enron motto suggests, it pays to ‘Ask why’; the irony here really is quite priceless. And I think perhaps there is a deeper level Gibney’s film is alluding to: the tale of humanity, of ignorance, and the lack of empathy and truth, forced into co-existence by the uncompromising mechanism called determinism. It is a lesson we all can learn and benefit from.

There are a couple of memorable scenes as well. One of them is when Skilling’s professor asked him if he was smart – to which he replied, “I’m f**king smart”. I then find myself asking, are we really progressing? If being ‘smart’ were simply equated to ‘good acting skills without morals and integrity’, then we would have a lot to fear for, wouldn’t we? Ask why – in the right direction. It really pays, I think.