Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room (2005)

Dir. Alex Gibney

Alex Gibney is one of the clubhouse leaders in documentaries that make you shake your head and/or your fist at the screen as you watch. His skill is in clarifying potentially difficult storylines, making the corporate or technical or financial jargon of his stories into simply understood narratives. In a different time, Gibney might have been a non-fiction author not unlike Bethany McLean and Peter Elkind, whose book of the same title he is adapting. Or, maybe even twenty or thirty years earlier, we might have seen him as a producer on a prestige news program, someone who could have carved out a long career on 60 Minutes. His focus tends to be on stories which are happening almost contemporaneously with his production and post-production; Enron was released before Jeff Skilling’s sentence or Ken Lay’s death. The trouble with Gibney is here in this movie too, perhaps more in this one than in any of his others. It’s a weakness for highly literal film clips (or, in some cases, the literal first musical cue that would come to mind) to go along with voiceover from talking heads. Talk about Jeff Skilling’s motorbike trips and there’s some appropriately ’90s footage of guys buzzing along dirt tracks. Mention magic and a rabbit comes out of a hat. There’s double-take level weirdness in what feels like extended footage of strippers when they talk about Lou Pi’s moderate to severe obsession with going to the club. My guess is that these impulses come from the same place as Gibney’s ability to streamline a story down to comprehension level: show and tell. When you watch those clips over and over again, you start to wonder if it wouldn’t have just been better to buy McLean and Elkind’s book and spend a similar amount of time to read what Gibney’s presenting.

The answer, of course, is that there’s not really a replacement for seeing Lay and Skilling and Andy Fastow in front of you, matching their voices and their faces to the immense fraud that they were committing. It’s one thing to read a book and understand the brokers calling California power plant operators and telling them to shut down in order to jack up prices; it’s another to hear the voices of terrorist actors (jokingly out to “retire by 30”) acting against other members of their country, and to hear their accomplices in the power plants following along with their whims. It’s when Gibney gets out of the stock footage territory and gets into actual recordings that it feels necessary to watch. A similarly impressive moment comes when Gibney shows footage from an internal Enron meeting where Fastow started selling major banks on his shell companies. More amazing in that moment than the fact that Fastow is doing some illegal stuff is that everyone from the major banks just goes with it. Whoever was in that meeting with the camcorder and cut to the other executives who are all like, “Well, this sounds like a terrific opportunity” was either doing much too good a job for what they were paid to do, or they were a mole inserted into Enron by the feds or the Ghost of Alex Gibney Past or something. It’s a terrific find that the film really benefits from far more than it benefits from showing us some early-twenties white guy with frosted tips staring gratefully into a stripper’s navel.

In Enron, Skilling is the clear villain of the piece. That’s quite an accomplishment, given that Gibney finds some room to blame virtually everyone. Lay is the one with the connections, the personal friend of the Bush family who represents the closeness between the highest levels of government and big business which is productive for them and suffocating for everyone else. Fastow is the young yes-man; the way that Lay and Skilling tried to turn on him, blame him for the whole of the scandal which was of their making, almost turns him into a sympathetic figure in this film. Certainly that’s an overreaction, but knowing that he snitched on Lay and Skilling is not nothing, I guess. There’s blame given to Ronald Reagan and the deregulation craze of the ’80s that Enron walked into, and there’s blame given to the Bushes for continuing it. There’s blame given to the analysts who never had the courage to look past the stream of money. There’s blame given to the accounting firm, Arthur Andersen, which categorically failed in doing their job with Enron and now, justly, no longer exist. In short, Gibney finds some blame for basically anyone with authority, and doesn’t let that smack any of Enron’s victims on the way out. The employees whose jobs and paychecks disappeared along with their pensions and other retirement funds. The people of California who got charged huge sums of money for spotty power service. Gray Davis, who was recalled by Californians and then replaced with Arnold Schwarzenegger. It’s a long, weird list, but Gibney is not sloppy about who is to blame here and who is not to blame.

Beyond being an accomplishment given how many other rogues are populating this gallery, Skilling’s villainy is interesting because of how he attains it. As the person who brought mark-to-market accounting to Enron, Skilling is the one who was responsible for making the company immensely profitable regardless of what kind of actual earnings (or losses) actually came Enron’s way, and Skilling is the one who made it so Enron would always be striving for some bigger deal so the stock prices might never go down. I don’t think it’s incredible to imagine that without the mark-to-market accounting, Enron may have just gone on as one of several energy giants in this country, never immune to the market but still extant. On the other hand, it wouldn’t ever have been profitable like it was through most of the 1990s without that accounting scheme to back it up. Enron may have been Lay’s company, but for Gibney it is Skilling’s legacy.

I think the number one place where Enron deserves some credit is in its focus on the gambling that was happening on Wall Street at the time. Skilling is described frequently, even by himself, as someone who wanted to take on higher risk because it could lead to greater profit. In 2001, it was naive to assume that Enron was the only company making those kinds of deals or working with such disregard for basic business ethics. That Enron comes out in 2005, before the financial crisis and recession that did so much harm later in the decade, is the brightest feather in its cap. Better documentaries than this one exist about the Great Recession and its causes, such as Inside Job, but when that movie was released in 2010, it was obvious that the problem with the economy came from Wall Street’s laxity. In 2005, Gibney correctly identified that it was not just a sickness in Ken Lay or Jeff Skilling. There was a systemic failure which allowed a company to grow that rich and powerful without having the money to back up that kind of weight in the economy, and that system of banks and auditors, Gibney notes, is all too willing to be complicit when the money would stop streaming in otherwise.

Those analysts who would get slammed for digging too deeply into Enron’s books or mistrusting the accounting system, and thus went ahead and signed off on Enron’s trustworthiness anyway, have heirs in the financial crisis of just a few years later. The analysts who whiffed, perhaps purposefully, on Enron, are not so different from the credit rating agencies like Moody’s or Standard and Poor’s which gave ludicrously high ratings to ludicrously bad bets. There’s a sinister edge to why those safeguards failed. It’s not just that the entire system was so rotten that it could be exploited, but that the watchdogs looked at the system and said, “Well, if they don’t get the approval from me, someone else will give it to them.” Then they lined their pockets. Enron fails to have the foresight to look into the subprime mortgage crisis, but it knew the sickness was ripe to be exploited by economic quacks nonetheless.

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