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Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room

Magnolia Home Entertainment // Unrated // January 17, 2006
List Price: $29.99 [Buy now and save at Amazon]

Review by Aaron Beierle | posted January 18, 2006 | E-mail the Author
The Movie:

A horrifying, true tale of corporate greed, "Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room" details the fall of giant corporation Enron, who went from being one of the largest corportations in the country to bankrupt (the largest corporate bankruptcy in American history) within a matter of weeks. Thousands and thousands of employees lost their jobs and retirement funds, and thousands and thousands of individual stockholders lost it all.

Based upon the book by Bethany McLean and Peter Elkind, "The Smartest Guys in the Room" details the scandal in a straightforward manner that those who aren't familiar with the financial terms will still be able to follow. The feature provides some background details on the three main players - Ken Lay, Andy Fastow and Jeff Skilling - who headed Enron, an energy company that was created after deregulation of the industry.

The company quickly rose to power on the idea of creating a sort of "stock market for natural gas", and the stock price rose over the years. Business publications highlighted the company, and Lay considered himself a visionary. However, Enron was allowed by the SEC to use "mark to market" accounting, which let the company post profits based upon future plans. Shockingly, they were able to continue posting a profit using this method, despite the fact that they were actually losing unbelievable amounts of money left and right. Bookkeeping concealed all, sweeping up any sort of corruption under the carpet.

There's one staggering story after another, starting with executive Lou Pai, who had a thing for strippers, charging visits to strip joints to the company's expense accounts and bringing strippers to the company's trading floor. He left the company with hundreds of millions of dollars, while the company concealed the fact that his division lost nearly a billion. Analysts were essentially told to come aboard or their companies were cut out of the Enron business. Those who questioned Enron's actions were bullied into joining the line, or else. Major financial companies, who should have said no, joined in and took their share. The company's motto in some advertisements was, "Ask Why?" However, no one ever really did, until "Fortune" magazine writer McLean did while researching an article, which brought about a fierce response from Enron.

Enron got into investing in the internet, joining Blockbuster on a deal that would allow the company to provide video-on-demand. However, it never happened, and yet Enron posted a profit from the "deal." Then, it happened: rolling blackouts started happening in California, during a time where, oddly, there didn't seem to be any reason for lack of supply. Enron, sensing a new opportunity to try and grab cash to keep their enterprise going, started to move power around in a way that was only good for themselves, resulting in artificial blackouts. The film plays audio of Enron traders making fun of the misery that the state was going through.

Things started chipping away: much to the disbelief of the industry, Skilling clearly cursed out an investor during a confrence call; public outrage over the manufactured energy crisis rose up and Skilling left, which drove the price down and signaled to outsiders that cracks were showing. Enormous amounts of files were being shredded, and all the while, Ken Lay was telling everyone was everything was perfectly fine. Meanwhile, Skilling had jumped ship and Fastow was fired not long after.

I've given details as to events of the movie, but there are so many more to be found within director Alex Gibney's feature, which includes a great deal of interviews and archive material. This is a truly horrifying documentary that shows a corportation going to the next step beyond greed and being fueled by evil (towards the end, the company pushed employees to invest, despite the fact that the company was spiraling downward) and an inhuman level of corruption. While those who've read the details may think there are no new details to be found here, the simple act of seeing this all play out on screen in Gibney's film is an experience that's simply chilling.


VIDEO: "Enron" is presented in 1.78:1 anamorphic widescreen by Magnolia Home Entertainment. The picture quality is quite good, as the film, which was shot in hi-def video, looks crisp and clear throughout. Although there are a couple of trace instances of artifacts, they were no a distraction and the majority of the presentation remained crisp and clean. Colors looked natural throughout, and never appeared smeary or otherwise problematic.

SOUND: "Enron" is presented in Dolby Digital 5.1, and the audio remained crisp and clear throughout most of the film, as dialogue and narration seemed well-recorded.

EXTRAS: Director Alex Gibney provides a fantastic commentary for the film, offering additional details about aspects of the story and chatting about the research, editing and interview process for the feature. It's an enjoyable track and definitely worth a listen. A deleted scenes section offers four clips, including footage of Kenneth Lay's indictment.

"We Should All Ask Why?" is a "making of" documentary that deals with the development of the documentary, and how the filmmakers set out to try and tell the tale in a way that would engage those who are not familiar with the financial industry. We also hear more detail about the process of trying to get people to participate in the film, and learn more about how Gibney was able to obtain audio and video footage.

We also get interviews with McLean and Elkind, a "Where Are They Now?" featuring the main Enron execs, an HDNet piece that offers interviews with McLean and Elkind, "Firesign Theater"'s performance piece called "Fall of Enron", a piece with Gibney reading the fascinating details of another skit Enron did as a company video (one is shown in the film), a gallery of Enron cartoons, the original "Fortune" magazine articles, web links and trailers for "Enron" and for other titles from the studio.

Final Thoughts: "Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room" is a staggering, saddening tale of massive fraud. While the media has covered many aspects of the story, director Alex Gibney's feature lays out every step of the corruption in a crisp, clear way that makes it all the more devastating to watch. The DVD edition provides fine audio/video quality, along with a fine set of supplements. Highly recommended.

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