Ken Lay, John Beard, Jim Chanos, Carol Coale, Peter Coyote, Gray Davis, Joseph Dunn, Max Eberts, Peter Elkind, Andrew Fastow
Bethany McLean & Peter Elkind (book, "The Smartest Guys in the Room: The Amazing Rise and Scandalous Fall of Enron"), Alex Gibney
It's Just Business.
Based on the best-selling book of the same name by Fortune reporters Bethany McLean and Peter Elkind, a multidimensional study of one of the biggest business scandals in American history. The chronicle takes a look at one of the greatest corporate disasters in history, in which top executives from the 7th largest company in this country walked away with over one billion dollars, leaving investors and employees with nothing. The film features insider accounts and rare corporate audio and video tapes that reveal colossal personal excesses of the Enron hierarchy and the utter moral vacuum that posed as corporate philosophy. The human drama that unfolds within Enron's walls resembles a Greek tragedy and produces a domino effect that could shape the face of our economy and ethical code for years to come.
$76.639 thousand on 3 screens.
English Dolby Digital 5.1
Runtime: 110 min.
Release Date: 1/17/2006
• Audio Commentary with Writer/Director Alex Gibney
• Deleted Scenes
• “We Should All Ask Why?: Making the Enron Film”
• “Where Are They Now?”
• “A Conversation with Bethany McLean”
• “A Conversation with Peter Elkind”
• “HDNet’s Higher Definition: Highlights from the Enron Show”
• “Firesign Theatre: The Fall of Enron”
• “Alex Gibney Reads Enron Skits”
• A Gallery of Enron Cartoons
• Fortune Magazine Articles
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Sony 36" WEGA KV-36FS12 Monitor; Sony DA333ES Processor/Receiver; Panasonic CV-50 DVD Player using component outputs; Michael Green Revolution Cinema 6i Speakers (all five); Sony SA-WM40 Subwoofer.
Enron: The Smartest Guys In The Room (2005)
Reviewed by Colin Jacobson (January 13, 2006)
In the annals of corporate scandals, Enron goes down as one of the biggest and most prominent. It produced America’s largest corporate bankruptcy and much investigation. Inspired by the book of the same title from Fortune magazine reporters Bethany McLean and Peter Elkind, 2005’s Enron: The Smartest Guys In the Room offers a cinematic glimpse of the subject.
Narrated by Peter Coyote, Enron starts with a dramatic moment: a dramatized look at the early 2002 suicide of former Enron vice-chairman Cliff Baxter. We learn that Enron was once the nation’s seventh largest corporation and it possessed a worth of nearly $70 billion. From there it leads us through basic notes about Enron chairman/CEO Ken Lay, the founding of Enron in 1985 and Lay’s connection to the Bush family, and a 1987 mini-scandal.
From there the flick looks at Skilling’s personality and harsh money-centric tactics, the work of the Enron traders, Skilling’s embrace of risky behaviors, and main lieutenants and what they did. Enron next covers the bullish stock market of the Nineties, the company’s rising fortunes and increasing risks, their real-life failures in various places, mistakes made by stock analysts and what happened to those who doubted Enron. The rest of the flick covers their further exploits, their creative bookkeeping, investigations, other principal players like CFO Andy Fastow, and what finally caused the bubble to burst.
The film offers interviews shot expressly for it. We get notes from Elkind, McLean, attorney for Enron shareholders Bill Lerach, author and former Republican strategist Kevin Phillips, ex-Enron executives Amanda Martin-Brock and Mike Muckleroy, ex-Enron accountant John Beard, Enron ex-traders Colin Whitehead and Charles Wickman, Texas Monthly magazine executive editor Mimi Swartz, Enron Energy Services ex-public relations Max Eberts, stock analyst John Olson, PGE lineman Al Kaseweter, Kynikos Associates president Jim Chanos, ex-stock analyst Carol Coale, University of Houston Law Center Dean Nancy Rapoport, Enron ex-VP Sherron Watkins, consumer advocate Harvey Rosenfield, California Public Utilities Commissioner Loretta Lynch, former California Governor Gray Davis, California State Senator Joseph Dunn, Davis’s former advisor David Freeman, Palmer Memorial Church Reverend James Nutter, and attorney Philip Hilder. We also get archival comments from many others such as Lay and Skilling.
The scandal was a complex affair, so Enron runs into many potential pitfalls. It would be easy for the tale to get lost in minutiae and all the details. Happily, that doesn’t occur, as director Alex Gibney provides a remarkably crisp and concise view of the events.
Granted, it doesn’t quite start off that way. It takes us a few minutes to get our bearings and begin to connect all the players and the pieces. However, any confusion remains minimal, and it quickly dissipates. The movie soon becomes easily understandable as it follows a logical course of events.
What story does Enron tell? One of insane arrogance and greed. The title comes from the notion that the folks at Enron were “the smartest guys in the room” – they pushed the concept of their own skill and intelligence to quash any potential investigation and dissent, all in a “we know what’s best” manner. The movie shows how this idea led to all sorts of abuses and how the house of cards finally came down around them.
Matters reach their lowest point during the rolling blackouts in California. I vaguely recall these, though I admit that since I live nowhere near California, they didn’t make much of a mental impact on me. Enron fleshes out the corporation’s role in those problems, and we see that it was absurd arrogance and a desire to screw everyone out of money that brought about the sad state of affairs. Even in a film packed with examples of corporate hubris, the bits in California seem extraordinary, especially when we hear audio tapes of the cynical and callous Enron traders.
Good documentaries avoid too much sentiment and editorializing. Enron occasionally dips its toe in those areas, but usually it remains reasonably objective. There’s no way a filmmaker avoid any subjectivity from entering the picture, but Enron mostly stays away from those pitfalls.
For instance, it doesn’t really show us the side of the folks who lost their life savings when Enron tanked. Some may argue that the film needs this human component and that it may become more powerful with this emotional element, but I disagree. That’s not the story being told here. We do get a few short glimpses of the toll taken on investors – primarily through some notes from lineman Kaseweter – but the flick stays away from obvious attempts to taint the Enron folks with this form of shame. I definitely like that, since the absence of sentiment allows us to focus more clearly on the actions of the Enron bigwigs.
I feel less wild about some of the film’s visual choices. Most of Enron shows either interview shots or news footage. That could turn the movie into a rather static presentation, so Gibney attempts to enliven things with illustrative clips. For instance, we might see an old-time magician to accompany comments about juggling books, and we might view a diver in mid-fall along with notes about financial collapse.
I understand that filmmakers don’t want to just show two hours of talking heads, but these moments get a little ridiculous at times. They seem self-conscious to me, and I find them to become a minor distraction.
I feel that way largely because Enron doesn’t need goofy visuals to enhance its story. The amazing roster of lies and obfuscation is more than enough to keep our interest. Enron digs into a major corporate scandal with gusto but also manages to keep things objective enough to seem reasonably fair. It becomes a deep, involving flick.
The DVD Grades: Picture B+/ Audio C+/ Bonus B
Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room appears in an aspect ratio of approximately 1.78:1 on this single-sided, double-layered DVD; the image has been enhanced for 16X9 televisions. Given the nature of the production, the picture quality seemed pretty positive.
I mostly didn’t factor the archival material not shot explicitly for Enron into my grade. Those elements demonstrated all sorts of flaws, but it didn’t seem fair to criticize the DVD for problems with that kind of stuff. As for the new shots, they presented solid sharpness. The new elements consistently looked crisp and detailed, and they betrayed few signs of softness. Those bits portrayed no problems with jagged edges or shimmering, but a smidgen of edge enhancement cropped up at times. No issues with source defects occurred, though a little artifacting could be seen.
Not surprisingly, the DVD’s palette tended toward natural tones. The movie’s hues came across with positive clarity and definition. The colors always looked vivid and concise, and I noticed no problems with them at any times. Blacks also seemed deep and firm, while the occasional low-light shots appeared well defined and clean. Overall, I found the image to seem satisfying for this sort of flick.
Given the film’s focus, I expected little from the Dolby Digital 5.1 soundtrack of Enron, and the track indeed seemed limited. Of course, the dialogue remained the focus, as the majority of the film’s information came from interviews or other conversational bits. However, the program offered good stereo imaging for music throughout the film, as it presented near-constant use of songs and score. A few effects also crept in from the sides and surrounds, but not much occurred. The music spread gently to the back as well, but the front speakers remained the focus, and speech was firmly centered.
Audio quality seemed fine. Speech was consistently crisp and concise, with no issues connected to edginess or intelligibility not caused by poor source materials; some of the tapes sounded fairly bad, but that was inevitable, and the movie provided helpful subtitles to make sure we understood the content. Music seemed well-reproduced and clear. Effects were minor but acceptably accurate. This was a low-key track that worked fine for the material.
Among the DVD’s supplements we find an audio commentary with Writer/Director Alex Gibney. He provides a running, screen-specific look at the flick. Gibney discusses filmmaking choices like editing, musical options, deleted sequences, and visual selections. Much of the time he expands upon the material we see. Gibney fleshes out the issues covered in the movie and gives us a deeper background for them. This helps make the flick more effective and illuminating. Gibney offers a good balance of background and filmmaking info in this solid commentary.
Four Deleted Scenes last a total of 19 minutes, 29 seconds. We get “The Silverspeak Incident”, “Car Salesman”, “Ken Lay’s Indictment” and “Gray Davis and the California Crisis”. “Silverspeak” tells us about another rip-off; it’s good to see, but it’d have been redundant in the final flick. “Car” offers a quick look at how the young traders rushed out to upgrade their rides. “Indictment” provides press conference footage, while “Davis” looks more strongly at the blackouts. The latter makes Davis look less positive than in the end product and opens up matters, though it goes off-topic in regard to how it’d fit in the movie; it leaves the Enron-centered thread, so while it’s interesting, it doesn’t mesh with the overall story. Anyway, all are interesting to see, though I wish they’d come with commentary to let us know why they were omitted.
Next comes We Should All Ask Why?: Making the Enron Film. This 13-minute and 55-second program offers notes from Gibney and author Bethany McLean, It covers the genesis of the movie and looks at McLean’s work, the film’s focus and impressions of the participants, challenges Gibney faced, the movie’s visual presentation, and reactions to the events. I like the snippets from McLean – it helps that she’s a babe – and Gibney offers a few new tidbits. However, he covered the film so well in his commentary that we don’t find a lot of revelations here. “Making” gives us a decent overview of the subject, but it doesn’t seem terribly useful if you’ve listened to the commentary.
Follow-up information appears in the two-minute and 43-second Where Are They Now? Gibney discusses the current status of Enron bigwigs Ken Lay, Jeff Skilling, Andy Fastow, and Lou Pai. He offers a concise examination of the subject.
For more notes from the writers of the Enron book, we get two programs: A Conversation with Bethany McLean (seven minutes, 34 seconds) and A Conversation with Peter Elkind (5:04). Both flesh out the information they provide elsewhere. Actually, McLean’s comments act more as a summary of her thoughts, while Elkind tends to dig more deeply into issues. For instance, he talks about the culture at Enron that heavily embraced strip joints. Since we don’t see a lot of Elkind in the final movie, it’s nice get a little more from him. McLean continues to come across as thoughtful and informative.
The 12-minute and 10-second HDNet’s Higher Definition: Highlights from the Enron Showincludes interviews with McLean and Elkind conducted by film critic Robert Wilonsky. They chat about their influences for the book, impressions of the movie, and thoughts about Enron and the whole story. There’s not much here that I’d call new, as the rest of the DVD covers most of this stuff. Still, I’ll not complain about more shots of McLean, and I like that we learn how the story changed the lives of the pair.
Firesign Theatre: The Fall of Enron lasts three minutes, 13 seconds. It shows that crew in the radio studio as they perform a comedy skit connected to the subject. Maybe somebody finds this stuff to be funny, but I just think it’s annoying and lame.
During the film, we see some of the in-house comedy bits created by the folks at Enron. Alex Gibney Reads Enron Skits lets us hear more of them. In the four-minute and 27-second piece, Gibney narrates the transcripts of these works. They’re remarkable to hear.
A Gallery of Enron Cartoons includes 18 frames of political skewering. Text information appears in a collection of Fortune Magazine Articles. The package includes three of these: “Is Enron Overpriced?”, “Enron Banks Dodge a Bullet” and “Partners In Crime”. McLean wrote the first alone, and she collaborated with Elkind for the other two. I very much like that we get to read these seminal articles and see how they influenced the film.
The DVD opens with a few ads. We get promos for The World’s Fastest Indian, One Last Thing… and HDNet. In addition, the trailers area has clips for Enron, Bubble, The War Within and League of Ordinary Gentlemen.
Insightful and reasonably even-handed, Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room presents an intriguing look at corporate misbehavior. We get a concise view of what happened at Enron as the program digs into this with depth and gusto. The DVD offers good picture quality with adequate audio and a fairly useful set of extras. Enron is a strong documentary that deserves a look.
Viewer Film Ratings: 4.2727 Stars|| Number of Votes: 11|