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Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room

Magnolia Home Entertainment // R // September 25, 2006
List Price: $29.98 [Buy now and save at Amazon]

Review by Joshua Zyber | posted February 9, 2007 | E-mail the Author
"Ask why."

The Movie:
Hollywood has it all wrong. While the major studios are busy churning out waves of PG-13 teen horror chillers and hard-R splatter porn month after month, by far the scariest movie of the decade turns out to be a documentary about finance and accounting. A hook-handed serial killer may give you a momentary jolt, but the soulless monsters of Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room destroyed thousands of lives, flaunted countless federal laws, and crippled an entire state's economy. And this is no fantasy with a happy ending. Every moment of this really happened, and our nation is still reeling from the consequences.

Alex Gibney's documentary, based on the non-fiction book by Fortune magazine writers Bethany McLean and Peter Elkind, makes it clear from its beginning that the Enron scandal isn't a story about numbers. It's a story about people, a genuine tragedy in which otherwise intelligent, talented men are undone by fatal flaws in their character, and who fall from grace so spectacularly that they turn our country's capitalist system completely upside down. We're introduced to our primary villains: Chairman and CEO Kenneth Lay, the neglectful father figure who turned a blind eye to the rampant corruption breeding within his ranks so long as he kept making money; President and COO Jeffrey Skilling, the arrogant golden boy with big ideas and a dangerous risk addiction; and CFO Andrew Fastow, the amoral whiz kid whose aptitude for concocting impenetrable paper trails allowed the company to falsify amazing record profits while hiding tens of billions of dollars in debt. Together, along with numerous cohorts also identified here, these men built Enron into the nation's 7th largest corporation, claiming over $70 billion in assets, almost entirely fictional. For a long time they fooled everyone, their illegal schemes personally making them millions upon millions of dollars each, until one day, almost in a blink, the whole thing came crashing down.

The movie goes into exhausting detail documenting the company's shady "mark to market" accounting processes, with which it could claim hypothetical future earnings (that never actually occurred) as real income, and the senior management's shamelessly unethical "pump & dump" strategy of artificially manipulating the firm's stock price and then cashing out their own personal stock options, all the while encouraging employees to invest their entire 401ks and personal savings into company stock. We're shown how Fastow set up a web of subsidiary companies to disburse and obfuscate the firm's massive debt, and how Skilling promoted a cutthroat culture within the organization that prized the most cunning and ruthless behavior in its associates. Most disturbing of all, we watch the company in desperation, buckling under the weight of its fraudulent activities, as its most outlandish conspiracy is rolled out. Lacking any other source of actual income, the Enron traders initiated a series of artificial power blackouts in California, due not to any genuine shortage of availability but purely a matter of greed, and then proceeded to rape the state with astronomical rates to restore the power they took away.

Formally speaking, Gibney's documentary doesn't break any new ground. It's constructed of the usual talking head interviews, stock footage, and recreations. Peter Coyote provides the running narration, a controversial choice that may open up the movie to charges of a biased Left-wing agenda. Indeed, the film makes a few tenuous connections between Enron and the Bush family that, while they may have some basis in reality, are not thoroughly explored and ignore the Democratic Party's equally significant ties to big business. Nonetheless, the facts of Enron's fraud and corruption are rooted in absolute truth, and there is no way to deny the case against them spelled out here. This is a fascinating, utterly absorbing story well told, and required viewing for anyone curious to understand the dangers of modern corporate America.

The Blu-ray Disc:
Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room debuts on the Blu-ray format courtesy of Magnolia Home Entertainment. The disc opens with an annoying forced promo for HDNet that can fortunately be skipped but is a nuisance.

Blu-ray discs are only playable in a compatible Blu-ray player. They will not function in a standard DVD player or in an HD DVD player. Please note that the star rating scales for video and audio are relative to other High Definition disc content, not to traditional DVD.

The Enron Blu-ray is encoded in High Definition 1080p format using MPEG2 compression on a single-layer 25 gb disc. The movie is presented in the original 16:9 aspect ratio in which it was filmed.

The newly-conducted interviews and recreations were shot on HD video and have the very sharp, bright, and colorful appearance you'd expect of a well-produced documentary. There's nothing that will really jump out at you, but it looks very crisp, clean, and professional. I'd say that comprises about half the movie, with the other half filled in by Standard Definition stock footage taken from a variety of sources in states of quality ranging from moderately decent to multi-generation VHS dupes. All of this stock footage has been cropped (sometimes stretched as well) from its 4:3 origins to 16:9.

Throughout the movie, both in the new and stock footage the picture frequently appears jumpy, as though all of the material was shot in a 60hz video frame rate and awkwardly converted to 24hz for theatrical exhibition. Once the damage is done, even converting it back to 60hz for home video can't restore the original fluid motion. Some other video problems are noticeable from time to time, including white clipping, minor color banding, and video noise. Since this is a documentary, I doubt many viewers will find any of these issues distracting. It is what it is.

The Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room Blu-ray disc is not flagged with an Image Constraint Token and will play in full High Definition quality over a Blu-ray player's analog Component Video outputs.

The movie's soundtrack is provided in standard Dolby Digital 5.1 or DTS 5.1 formats. For what reason this film needed DTS I'm not sure. The two tracks sound indistinguishable to me.

Interview dialogue and narration are clear and intelligible. Licensed songs and the score sound fine, with a mild amount of bass now and again. The sound mix is primarily monaural in design with only the music expanding to stereo. There is no surround activity. Again, it's a documentary. What else would you need or expect?

Subs & Dubs:
Optional subtitles – English captions for the hearing impaired or Spanish.
Alternate language tracks - N/A.

The DVD edition of the movie had a fair amount of supplements, most of which didn't make the transition to Blu-ray. All that's been carried over are:

  • Audio Commentary -Writer/director Alex Gibney defends his song choices, recreations, shooting in HD, the editing and imagery, as well as those parts of the story he had to leave out. Gibney is a great speaker and this commentary is a worthwhile listen that helps to flesh out the story even more.
  • Higher Definition: Enron Episode (26 min.) - Presented in 1080i High-Def, this episode from the HDNet interview series features Bethany McLean and Peter Elkind (co-authors of the Smartest Guys in the Room book) as well as director Alex Gibney. All are intelligent, well-spoken individuals. While the DVD had only a 12-minute excerpt from the program, the Blu-ray contains the entire episode.
Also on the disc are a commercial for HDNet and trailers for unrelated Blu-rays from Magnolia. Missing from the DVD are deleted scenes, a short making-of featurette, a "Where Are They Now?" featurette, a radio parody, media extras (such as magazine articles and political cartoons about the scandal), and a section on internet and book updates. Are we seriously supposed to believe that none of them could have fit on the Blu-ray?

Final Thoughts:
Unfortunately, Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room was completed before the story quite finished. The documentary ends with the indictments of the company principals but doesn't learn of their ultimate fates. Jeffrey Skilling was convicted on charges of insider trading and securities fraud (among others) and was sentenced to 24 years in prison. Andrew Fastow cooperated with prosecutors and will serve 6 years. Kenneth Lay was found guilty of conspiracy to commit fraud, but died of a heart attack before sentencing, thus causing his conviction to be vacated.

The film is a terrific story and a frightening cautionary tale about the ease and dangers of corruption. Highly recommended.

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