ENRON: THE SMARTEST GUYS IN THE ROOM

-By Doris Toumarkine


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Forget about playing dumb. As Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room suggests, most of the top execs at energy-supply giant Enron, which went spectacularly bankrupt in late 2001, played blind or, like already convicted Andy Fastow (Enron CFO) and top aide Michael Kopper, played illegally, sneakily and greedily.

Emmy-winning writer-director Alex Gibney (The Trials of Henry Kissinger) draws upon the best-selling account of the same title by Fortune magazine reporters Bethany McLean and Peter Elkind, who are among many of the film's eloquent talking heads. Leveraging great access via interviews, ample news footage and other material, the film paints a nasty, often dispiriting portrait of both corporate and individual greed, extreme selfishness, corruption, machismo and denial. While providing discriminating filmgoers with a juicy story of bad behavior and ambitious tomcats on the hot corporate roof, Enron is a well-deserved skewering of what was America's seventh-largest company that should put all corporate animals on notice.

The entire Enron story-its businesses, its trickery, its unraveling-is complicated, but the filmmakers deliver clarity. Its business was largely that of creating and taking control of worldwide energy markets. Its trickery had much to do with faking profits, diverting money from phony funds, and enacting "pump-and-dump" strategies-pumping up stock prices prior to dumping shares.

A number of Enron scoundrels like Fastow and Kopper have been nailed. Big fish like Enron founder and chairman Kenneth Lay and his idea guy, president and COO Jeff Skilling, await their days in court. A former McKinsey & Co. consultant, Skilling, as the film presents him, is a fascinating study of an over-energized macho man running on full blarney. And it's interesting to learn that Lay was a well-connected Bush buddy who early made his name as a deregulation advocate (the better to run a company like Enron).

The story's most intriguing player is an elusive one who disappears early. Lou Pai is an Asian-American master of the Enron universe, a strip-club addict and pleasure-oriented exec who got out in the early '90s unscathed with his many millions, taking the cash and a just-married stripper off to a new life in Hawaii. Timing is everything.
A decade later, Enron was shattered and forced into bankruptcy after the SEC began its investigation and a "Hail Mary" chance at a merger collapsed. In addition to the tragedy of so many regular folk, including Enron employees and stockholders, losing so much in the demise, the doc conveys another unsettling truth: that so many beyond the Enron higher-ups were complicit in the deceit. These included lawyers, accounting firms (Arthur Andersen, specifically), stock analysts, big banks and media like Fortune magazine, which named Enron as one of the most admired companies of 2000.

Additionally, audio transcripts of phone conversations reveal the diabolical glee of low-level Enron traders chuckling about the damage done as a result of Enron tampering with California energy supplies, a deed that brought about a state crisis.

The movie looks great, thanks to the bright and crisp HD capture orchestrated by Spirit and Sundance Award-winning cinematographer Maryse Alberti (Crumb, We Don't Live Here Anymore). And for filmgoers who like a mocking dose of standards like "Love for Sale" that lend ironic comment to the proceedings, Enron delivers with a pummeling, playful soundtrack that underscores the pervasive bad behavior.

All in all, Enron is a fun and demoralizing roller-coaster ride that will whet appetites for the Lay and Skilling debut in court as The Most Nervous Guys in the Room. It probably won't hurt the film's box office that Kurt Eichenwald's Enron-themed Conspiracy of Fools: A True Story has just hit bookstores and probably the bestseller charts.


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