"Americans Would Be Outraged If They Understood Enron Collapse"
-Headline from The Onion, February 22, 2002
While it's technically "yesterday's news" (though there's still a long legal battle ahead), the collapse of Enron has nonetheless gone under the radar of most Americans---yet it's just as scary as any horror story, especially since it actually happened. The sordid tale of this prominent American company is eerily similar to something you'd see on VH1's Behind the Music: young upstart takes the industry by storm, only to be gradually dismantled by temptation and selfishness. It's sad to imagine what such a major power could've accomplished if its head were on straight, but perhaps the company's post-millennium death is best expressed in this anonymous quote: "It may be that your whole purpose in life is simply to serve as a warning to others".
The exact details of Enron's massive display of fraud---much to the dismay of company accountants---have been partially uncovered, though paper shredders have ensured we may never know the complete story. If you follow the news, at least since the pieces began to fall in place several years ago, you may have a vague recollection of Enron's jaw-dropping history of corporate irresponsibility. For those unfamiliar with the story, here's the short version: the higher-ups at the company ripped off the investors and workers by using a clever style of accounting to claim future profits that never materialized. By the time the company went bankrupt a few years ago, the rich were richer and the poor were poorer. The powers-that-be certainly were "the smartest guys in the room" for obvious reasons, though such a compliment bears about as much moral weight as Hitler winning Time's "Man of the Year" in 1939.
It's true that those responsible did an effective job of weaving a complicated web; after all, how else could they have fooled so many people for so many years? There were a few eagle-eyed individuals who saw through the smoke and mirrors, though---including Bethany McLean and Peter Elkind, a pair of reporters for Fortune magazine. McLean and Elkind dug up enough dirt to eventually write "The Smartest Guys in the Room", a tell-all book which helped bring the gory details to national attention. Director Alex Gibney, in turn, directed the recent film of the same name. It does an admirable job of condensing the massive, detailed story of greed and arrogance into a provocative documentary that's easily among the best in recent years.
Gibney's knack for keeping things organized is perhaps The Smartest Guys in the Room's greatest asset---not to be undone by the scathing source material, of course. From the company's fast rise and nigh-invulnerability inside the stock market to the rolling blackouts in California, nary a stone is left unturned during the film's 100-minute running time. The documentary's only real faults are several unnecessary visual aids, including a pointless tour through a strip club that will likely keep The Smartest Guys from being shown in most classrooms. Appropriate music cues help punctuate various stages of the story, though several seem gratuitously placed for their names only. Even so, this is a skillfully crafted effort that does a fantastic job of entertaining and informing---and quite frankly, that's all a documentary really needs to do.
Fortunately, Magnolia Entertainment has paired the main feature with an excellent DVD package, highlighted by a relatively solid technical presentation and a host of informative bonus features. In all honesty, it's the most fun you'll have uncovering the dark side of well-groomed men in business suits…aside from Robocop, of course. Let's take a closer look, shall we?
Quality Control Department
Video & Audio Quality:
Presented in a 1.78:1 anamorphic widescreen aspect ratio, this documentary features a decent transfer with a few drawbacks. First, the bad news: news footage and other vintage clips have been cropped (and often stretched) to match the shape of the newer material; unfortunately, these older scenes aren't composed well and look awkward in comparison. Everything else looks terrific, especially the opening shots of downtown Houston and the newly recorded interviews. It's an uneven visual presentation, but still better than most documentaries on DVD.
The audio presentation is fine despite its limited nature: promotional clips (i.e. company videos and the like) sound about as good as possible, while newer interviews are perfectly clean and clear. This Dolby 5.1 Surround mix doesn't feature much in the way of ambience and atmosphere, but the music occasionally opens up the soundstage a bit. Only optional Spanish subtitles have been included with the main feature, though Closed Captioning is available if your television supports it.
Menu Design, Presentation & Packaging:
The basic animated menus (seen above, presented in 1:33:1) offer a simple layout and navigation, though they're a bit generic in design. This 100-minute documentary has been divided into 15 chapters, while no layer change was detected during playback. The packaging for this one-disc release includes a standard keepcase with a descriptive back cover and no insert.
There's a good mix of stuff here, most of which supports the main feature quite well. The first is a full-length Audio Commentary with director Alex Gibney, who seems very organized and comfortable during this track. It obviously favors more background info than technical tidbits, while it was also interesting to hear the director's thoughts on the film's (mostly) well-placed music selections. Next up is a series of four Deleted Scenes (19:39) including raw footage of Kenneth Lay's indictment and the expansion of a few scenes. There's also a making-of featurette entitled "We Should All Ask Why" (13:54); while it's not anything new and different, it certainly shows the care in which the footage was obtained and organized. Also of interest is "Where Are They Now?" (2:43), a self-explanatory piece that hints at the whereabouts of several Enron masterminds.
Next up is HDNet's "Higher Definition" (12:10), a collection of interviews with the book's co-authors, as well as a radio parody of an Enron promotional skit by The Firesign Theatre. There's also a few loosely related "media" extras, including a Company Skit (4:27, as read by the director), a Political Cartoon Gallery and a trio of Articles from Fortune magazine. Rounding out the extras is a series of Web & Book Updates, just so you can keep tabs on current events.
The only thing better than a solid documentary on DVD is…well, a solid DVD to back up the documentary. Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room is an excellent primer that helps expose the darkest sides of corporate irresponsibility in a relatively easy-to-follow manner---and for that alone, it's easily worth the price of admission. The DVD package from Magnolia Pictures boasts a solid technical presentation and a series of helpful bonus features, making this a well-rounded release that's really worth looking into. No matter if you're a charismatic CEO or a common copy clerk, there's much to learn from this twisted tale. Highly Recommended.
Randy Miller III is an art instructor and office monkey based in Harrisburg, PA. He also does freelance graphic design projects and works in a gallery. When he's not doing that, he enjoys slacking off, general debauchery, and writing things in third person.