Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room

Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room
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A documentary about the Enron corporation, its faulty and corrupt business practices, and how they led to its fall.

Title:Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room
Release Date:April 22, 2005
MPAA Rating:R
Production Co.:2929 Productions
Production Countries:United States of America
Director:Alex Gibney
Casts:, , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,
Plot Keywords:corruption, capitalism, bankrupt, scandal, wall street, securities, stocks and bonds , independent film, economics, financial crisis, stock market, corporation
Alternative Titles:
  • Enron - [US]

Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room Reviews

  • Fascinating documentary - never a dull moment - too bad the trial results are missing
    by lightdee on 25 April 2007

    28 out of 30 people found the following review useful:

    A very interesting expose on the greed, hubris, lies, etc. that brought Enron down. This film is well-done and digs up a lot of dirt. The PBS viewing showed a little clip after the film which discussed the strange trial results, which was probably the biggest problem with the film - it pretty much ends with the bankruptcy of enron and doesn't show much about the trials, since they took place later, although they would make for a great inclusion. To me, the most incredible part of the film is that fact that these guys would stand up every day and tell bold-faced lies to the employees, the government, the investors, and make it all sound good. They had to be thinking in the back of their head "it's all going to come crashing down someday"...

  • I hope Ken Lay is somewhere hot
    by blanche-2 on 16 December 2009

    21 out of 23 people found the following review useful:

    I agree with previous posts: "Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room" is right up there with the biggest horror films of our time. And this one is scarier because it's real.

    It's hard to say what boggles the mind most: the complicity of Arthur Andersen, the banks, and the traders in this elaborate scheme of making a failing company look profitable; the fact that the executives cashed out their stock at high prices and froze the employees' stock accessibility until it was worth nothing; the derisive laughter of the traders over the Enron-caused blackouts in California ("let them fall into the ocean - let them use candles); that Lu Pi, a guy who ran a failing Enron company, left that company with $250 million in his pocket; or the fact that Ken Lay died before they could convict him of anything. Take your pick, it's all disgusting.

    When one of the California power companies called Enron and said there was a fire in the plant, the trader chuckled and said, "Burn, baby, burn." That sums up Enron's, the banks, the traders', and Arthur Andersen's attitude toward the common man - burn, baby, burn. Let's hope that's what Ken Lay is doing right now.

    This is a great documentary even if you don't understand business. The only part I didn't quite get were these dummy corporations that Flatow started up to hide Enron's losses which were then invested in by the banks. That was a little complicated, but you'd think someone would have realized that the CFO of Enron running companies that were supposedly selling to Enron was a conflict of interest. Funny, no bank picked it up. They won't give you a mortgage, but they'll pay a fortune to a dummy corporation.

    Probably my favorite part was the mark to market accounting system employed by Enron and signed off on by Arthur Andersen. I have no understanding of a reliable accounting firm allowing such a thing. In other words, if I have a book proposal, I can report a profit of, say, $30,000 on the book even though it isn't sold and I haven't seen a dime. And one wonders how they cooked their books. With help, that's how.

  • Insightfully informative
    by Anupam Satyasheel on 17 May 2007

    20 out of 22 people found the following review useful:

    Based on and named after the bestseller book Smartest Guys in the Room, this documentary provides an insightful look into the scandalous fall of Enron Corp. There are no actors in this documentary and yet it is dramatic. Such were the factors leading to the 'amazing rise and scandalous fall' of Enron that even a documentary featuring events preceding that historic day in December 2001, when Enron filed for the largest bankruptcy in the corporate US history, seems like a tale of epic imagination.

    This documentary is neither as detailed nor as insightful as the book, but it does a great job of providing an insightful and reasonably detailed account of the Enron saga. Overall, it is not of any incremental value for the people who have read the book. However, if you can't go through 464 pages, this does a great job of enlightening you on the drama that Enron was.

  • The biggest pyramid of them all
    by paul2001sw-1 (paul2001sw@yahoo.co.uk) on 3 August 2007

    22 out of 26 people found the following review useful:

    How did Enron become the world's largest corporate bankruptcy? A culture of greed, and fraud, coupled with an accounting system ripe for abuse, was part of it. But one also needs to understand the way that markets work (ironically, since Enron claimed to know this better than anyone else). The rise in Enron's share price had all the hallmarks of a classic pyramid scheme, whereby, if you claim to be making enough money, you can get away without proving it, because investors all want in, not out. Meanwhile, Enron bankrolled its regulators with the money it did have to stop them asking about the money it didn't. Finally, when all this was exposed, the firm was worthless, even though there had been at least some successful businesses within it, because, fundamentally, like all businesses, Enron has sold confidence and now this commodity was in very short supply; but Chief Executive Jeff Skilling's claim that "it was a classic run on the bank" is disingenuous to say the least, given that the real money that Enron did (at one time) make was earned through deliberately operating with very low reserves. 'The Smartest Guys in the Room' tells some of the story of Enron's collapse: and it's a compelling tale, although I found the use of background music rather annoying (the story is divided up into titled sections, with each section being the name of a song, which feels rather heavy-handed and obvious). But is gives a good flavour of what went on at Enron, although it doesn't go into the full details of the crooked financial transactions, and (like all the books I have read on the same subject) doesn't manage to answer the killer questions: what were, year-on-year, Enron's real profits and losses? and who knew what, when? Probably, these are impossible questions to answer: the picture that emerges is of a company where the bosses didn't want to know, everybody's job was to keep their superior happy and rich, and if you could do this, they wouldn't ask how you had managed it (or how rich you had made yourself in the process); a happy conspiracy until, eventually and inevitably, the money ran out. And as I said before, the irony is that this company that tried and failed to buck the markets was itself the high priest of market capitalism. If Enron's failure at least induces a dose of scepticism about the self-proclaimed (and invariably loaded) champions of market economics, some good at least will have emerged from what is otherwise a sorry tale.

  • Stylish but Soft-Hitting
    by Max Schmeder on 9 August 2007

    23 out of 29 people found the following review useful:

    "Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room" is suave and well-crafted, but betrays some wishful thinking and apologist tendencies.

    Some ex-Enron workers venture poetic but unmerited speculations about their corrupter associates, conjuring hypothetical images of their former friends now reflecting back on their transgressions and experiencing ethical remorse. We are subjected to clichés about their having to face their own "shadows" and whatnot, all of it speculative, and in spite of any evidence that they ever experienced a moral twinge or regretted anything other than getting caught.

    There's also an insidious "slippery slope" message, some philosophical waxing upon the blurriness of ethical lines, and depictions of compulsive personalities, all of which introduce unwarranted moral ambiguity. Bethany McLean, one of the investigative journalists, surprisingly lays overmuch of the blame on Andrew Fastow, declaring that the fraud started with him (!) even though Fastow is elsewhere shown to have been recruited into a company already corrupt from the top down. There is some subtle attempt at containment here. This film skewers the culprits one moment, but then shrinks from the implications.

    The WORST example is a naive question given undue emphasis by being left "provocatively" open-ended. The narrator, Peter Coyote, asks, "What motivated the corrupt traders? Was it their million dollar bonuses? Or was it docile complicity?" (I'm paraphrasing here) A no-brainer answer you might think, but then - I kid you not - the documentary suggests the second possibility and launches into the fascinating but entirely irrelevant Milgram experiment, in which reluctant subjects are persuaded by an authority figure to voluntarily electrocute others. But Enron traders were a uniformly sanguine lot, evidenced by testimonials and taped conversations displaying naked greed and delight (generous clips of which are included in the documentary). Yet we are supposed to imagine they were the victims of obedience training?

    It's a bit much...

    Maybe two or three of the commentators don't pussyfoot around, and through them "The Smartest Guys" successfully conveys the perils of the free market and deregulation; but these lessons get watered down by wistful undertones and feigned ambiguity. Post-Enron, the communist charge that capitalists are "cannibals" now seems undeniably apt. Yet we forever flatter ourselves, rehearsing the cant of the free market ideology, according to which the profit motive encourages 1) innovation and 2) hard work. Granted. But what the pundits and economists invariably overlook is that the profit motive also encourages 3) robbery. Adam Smith's *other* "invisible hand," if you will ...hidden behind the back and gripping a knife! Enron calls for an inquiry into the nature of capitalism, not an explanation based upon specific personalities. Human nature is what it is, and there will always be people ready and willing to cut throats when given motivation and opportunity. To misquote the NRA: People don't kill people.. incentives do.

    Final criticism: a bit of shabby hypocrisy. One of the Enron execs is portrayed as having sleazy encounters with strippers; the viewer is then dutifully treated to lots of footage of nude strippers... ha!

  • Holy Cow! You don't have to be the smartest guy to understand this.
    by bluessis on 24 April 2007

    32 out of 48 people found the following review useful:

    OK. I remember when this came out, I thought that business stuff is not my forte, and so I never bothered to watch it. But tonight my boyfriend was watching it on PBS, and the filmmakers and people being interviewed totally make it understandable. And I am totally appalled. It boggles my head that these people, not just Ken Lay and Jeffrey Skilling, but also just the common traders on the floor, were so scarily insane and greedy. Some of the clips of traders talking on the floor or phones about events in California, etc., were the scariest and (I know I said it before, but...) appalling! I highly recommend this film. I feel terribly sorry for all of those people who got caught up in the maelstrom. Somehow, I find this documentary about corporate finance gone bad creepier than any horror film... cause it is real!

  • Unfettered Hubris Drives Intriguing Account of Enron Scandal
    by Ed Uyeshima on 17 April 2008

    14 out of 15 people found the following review useful:

    Even after reading Kurt Eichenwald's "Conspiracy of Fools: A True Story", I was not prepared for the near-Greek tragedy presented in this smartly produced documentary of the Enron scandal based on yet another book by journalists Bethany McLean and Peter Elkind. Directed by Andy Gibney, the 2005 film follows the complicated rise and fall of Enron in an easy-to-follow, chronological order since the mid-1980's, using actor Peter Coyote's lucid voice-over narration. Enron started as a moderate-sized Houston gas-pipeline company that grew exponentially, reaping benefits for shareholders and far more so for the Enron executive team for a long, uninterrupted stretch. Billions of dollars were collected due to speculative mark-to-market accounting techniques approved by the SEC, and Enron consequently became one of the world's largest natural-gas suppliers.

    What resonates most from this searing film is how circumstantially pathological the chief villains are in this true corporate morality story. While the infamous Ken Lay comes across as the corrupt figurehead we have already come to know through news reports, it's really Enron CFO Andy Fastow (dubbed appropriately "The Sorcerer's Apprentice") and especially President and COO Jeff Skilling, who are mercilessly exposed here. Skilling is portrayed as a brilliant leader and a corporate Darwinist, whose favorite book is Richard Dawkins' "The Selfish Gene", which he apparently translated into a bloodless performance review policy that worked like a genetic algorithm for people. Employees were rated on a 1-5 scale based on the amount of money one made for the company. Skilling mandated that between 10-15% of employees had to be rated as 5's (worst). And to get a rating of 5 meant that one was immediately fired. This review process was dubbed "rank and yank". Such was a typical example of his survivalist thinking.

    The corruption spread throughout the company, as Enron was responsible for, among other things, gaming the Northern California "rolling blackouts" in 2001, whereby the company profited as huge parts of the state were plunged into darkness. Citizens were threatened by a deregulation plan that essentially enabled a number of immoral Enron traders (led by Tim Belden) to place calls that drove up energy-market prices and took advantage of power-plant shutdowns. Of course, the Bush family dynasty does not come across unscathed in the Enron story and justifiably so according to their inextricable ties to Lay. Gibney effectively uses video footage from testimony at congressional hearings, as well as interviews with disillusioned former employees such as Mike Muckleroy and whistle-blower Sherron Watkins (who uses some effective pop culture references like "Body Heat" and Jonestown to get her points across).

    There are some amusing vignettes and images that tie some of the disparate elements together with excessive glibness. The documentary is best when it sticks to the facts, for this is one inarguable case where fact is truly stranger than fiction. Extras are plentiful on the 2006 DVD. Gibney provides an informative albeit verbose commentary track, and four deleted scenes, about twenty minutes in total, are included that become redundant with the film's portrayal of corporate malfeasance. There is also a fourteen-minute making-of featurette, as well as a "Where Are They Now?" snippet on the principals and three separate conversations with McLean and Elkind on how they got the story, how they validated their findings, and their enthusiastic reaction to the film. Other bonus materials include Gibney reading from scripts of skits performed at Enron and a Firesign Theater sketch about Enron's demise, as well as Fortune Magazine articles written by McLean and Elkind and a gallery of editorial cartoons.

  • Even more chilling now
    by rogerdarlington on 17 February 2009

    11 out of 14 people found the following review useful:

    Enron was the US energy company that "Fortune" named as "America's Most Innovative Company" for six consecutive years and, at its height, it employed 22,000 people and claimed revenues of around $100 billion. It went bankrupt at the end of 2001 and this documentary was released in 2005, but I did not see it until four years later. By then, we had experienced 'the end of capitalism as we've known it' and the most serious collapse in financial markets since the Wall Street Crash. What Enron and the wider market crash have in common is the murky world of derivatives, an excessive exuberance for risk, and simple avarice and hubris, while the mother and father of both crises are deregulation.

    Alex Gibney co-wrote, co-produced and directed this work which, though occasionally complex, is compelling viewing and a lesson to us all on corporate greed and regulatory failure. Interviews with key observers and extracts from Congressional hearings are linked by a narration from Peter Coyote. The heroines of the story are Bethany McLean, the financial journalist who first questioned the valuation of Enron, and Sherron Watkins, the senior manager who blew the whistle on the company. The villains are a long list of men headed by Enron Chairman Kenneth Lay and Chief Executive Jeffrey Skilling. Maybe there is a gender lesson here as well - as many financial and political ones.

  • It's worth your time if you're a horror fan. It's as frightening as anything you've seen.
    by doctorsmoothlove on 19 May 2008

    7 out of 7 people found the following review useful:

    The collapse of the Enron Corporation is fascinating to anyone with even rudimentary understanding of the economic practices of American corporations. It isn't surprising that several books describing the collapse are available. However, what is surprising is that a film would be adapted from one of said books. Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room takes a different approach to the documentary genre, as most documentaries are independent of a literary source or spawn one of their own. I'm not inclined to say this is the reason the film is not only entertaining and informative even to those who lack knowledge of business practices, but it probably does contribute to its effectiveness. It may be difficult for non-American viewers to completely understand, but the psychological appeal is evident. I had to watch this film for my Business Ethics course in University.

    The film describes the formation of Enron under the leadership of the ignominious Ken Lay. Jeffrey Fastow is Ken's disciple and he hires one of his own. He is graduate student, Andrew Fastow, who helps him facilitate Enron's practice of hiding debt in smaller companies. Fastow later becomes CEO of the company. The film also mentions the Lu Pei interlude, which resulted in 250 million dollars exiting the company for Pei's private consumption. The film also describes Kenneth Lay's position as CEO until his resignation in 2002. In addition, the film describes Enron's "power play" to manipulate electrical energy prices in California, Enron's relationship with the Bush family, Enron's fixation with imaginary profits, Enron's relationship with Arthur Anderson ,and Enron's "rank n' yank" system of eliminating "bad" employees. If what I've described sounds like an overview of a non-documentary film, then I've communicated effectively. With only narration, interviews, and commentary, Peter Coyote and Alex Gibney create a documentary which transcends its genre into a legal thriller of comparison to Michael Clayton. While such a comparison may seem unjust, and it probably is, this film's source material allows it to unfold unlike most documentaries. Skilling's fixation with Enron's continued success, embodied with his declaration "I am Enron", to Lu Pei's swindling of corporate money, and the brutal end create a documentary with a distinctive narrative structure. The film even displays conclusion by stating the end to its villain-protagonists and the harm that they caused to their underlings.

    Additionally, the film provides analysis of Enron's policies through consultation of business associates of Enron. It deftly compares the ability of Lay and the others to swindle such large amounts of money to Milgram's experiment on the limit of human obedience. The effect all this has is to show the ability of the human mind to find loopholes in the most sophisticated of systems. It also deeply bothers the audience, at least it did me. Any thought a viewer has of the virtues of corporate America will vanish after watching this film. Furthermore, when the film describes Enron's role in the end of Gray Davis' governorship and the Bush family's role in deregulating the business environment, it does so without appearing derogatory.

    Few documentaries are as adroitly crafted as this one is. Through interviews, TV clips, and narration, Gibney has created an imaginative and compelling documentary. At times I felt as if this film wasn't the documentary it claims to be. It never lets you rest as it gives example after example of the infinity of corruption. Maybe by watching it, you'll be one of the smartest guys in the room. Lay, Skilling, Pei, and Fastow would have no problem acing an ethics course or at least getting a good grade.

  • A fascinating story in a clear and well-delivered film whose only weakness is the bias inherent in the telling
    by bob the moo on 19 February 2008

    13 out of 19 people found the following review useful:

    When Enron was granted permission to use mark-to-market accounting it saw the start of the dramatic increase in its profits and its share price. The method allows a company to claim projected earnings from projects once the deal is signed. With this in place Enron was able to earn money without actually earning money. However this could not go on forever and the company was under pressure to continually come up with new ideas to keep the deals and money flowing. And it did so, to the point where it was widely praised within the business community and by stockholders. However things would eventually catch up with the company and a few years ago the company collapsed in bankruptcy before the arrests began.

    Working for an American multinational myself I am always interested and critical of the business model of making more and more money and keeping the stock increasing in value being the only way to survive. So I have watched films like this and like The Corporation with interest and appreciate the way that they sell a complex issue in easy to understand ways. With the Enron film it is all the more interesting because it is a prime example of how it all fell down and how easy it is to con the market – which, regardless of the legality of the accounting method used, is basically what they did! The film tells the story well and it is a tale that never struggles to fascinate. Lesser hands could have fudged the telling but the team here structure it well and use footage from Enron and C-Span to really good effect. In fact I did wonder how much this film cost to make because the vast majority of it is stock footage and a handful of interviews.

    Although they lay things out well, the film doesn't manage to avoid nailing its colours to the mast; which is a shame because the story is compelling enough and damning enough to work without resorting to cheap digs, funny footage and so on. Sadly it does use this – not to the point of distraction but just to the point where I wondered if the makers didn't think that the facts would be strong enough to make the audience get the point without the extra bit of hammering. The film also stretches to bring in Bush and his cronies as if they were also to blame; it doesn't labour this point but what little it does is stretched – again it could have done less and allowed the audience to draw its own conclusions.

    Overall this is not a perfect documentary because it is a bit biased and based on commentary from subjects all on one side of the fence. However it is well structured and easy to follow, stripping away the feared complexity of the tale and telling it in a fascinating and engaging way. A cautionary tale that I doubt that those that needed to learn from have learnt from. Well worth a look and yet another good documentary making it into cinemas.

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