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Enron documentary tells of human toll

Sundance audiences left shaking heads over debacle
/ Source: Reuters

There were many times when director Alex Gibney said he was urged to rush his documentary “Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room” to theaters last year and be the next “Fahrenheit 9/11,” but he resisted, not wanting to get involved in a political brawl.

The movie touches on links between President Bush and Enron Corp., but more closely explores the Houston-based company’s massive financial collapse and the human toll on those involved in what was the largest U.S. bankruptcy in history.

The documentary debuted over the weekend at the Sundance Film Festival to packed houses, and left audiences shaking their heads and wondering how the Enron debacle could have happened.

“The film was about something more fundamental than Democrats vs. Republicans,” Gibney told Reuters. “I wanted to raise the issue of bigger problems and tell a story that didn’t necessarily have immediate and easy-to-figure out solutions.”

“Smartest Guys” tells the story of how energy trading company Enron hid debt and used shifty accounting methods that ended in massive losses for investors and employees, and destroyed the reputations of then chairman Ken Lay and chief executive Jeffrey Skilling.

In December 2001, Enron fell into bankruptcy, and tens of thousands lost their jobs. Some pensioners saw their retirement accounts dwindle to near-nothing. Lay and Skilling have pleaded not guilty to criminal charges.

Award-winning documentarian Gibney based the film on the best-selling book, “The Smartest Guys in the Room” by financial journalists Bethany McLean and Peter Elkind.

In the same interview, Elkind acknowledged the difficulty of distilling a 400-plus page book into a two-hour film that is easily understood, but he said Gibney succeeded.

Ask why?
Parts of the film “have an emotional impact that the best writing on the page, can’t match,” Elkind said.

“People will feel disturbed, they will feel upset, and then they will want to ask, ’why?’,” added Gibney.

“Ask why” was a slogan used by Enron to exhort employees to find new ways to make money, and Gibney uses the same phrase to encourage audiences to ask how the collapse happened.

The film’s short answer is greed and human fallibility --not only by Enron’s top executives, but by Wall Street financial analysts, investment bankers and energy traders.

Gibney admits the “Smartest Guys” is less about breaking new ground than about telling how the collapse happened so that in the future similar financial debacles can be avoided.

“There has been a lot written about it, but always in bits and pieces,” he said. “We collected it all in one place.”

The few new elements include more telephone tapes of energy traders joking about ripping off Californians who saw utility bills skyrocket in the state’s 2000-2001 energy crisis.

For the first time, people hear Skilling call a Wall Street analyst who questioned Enron’s earnings, an “asshole.” The comment was widely known, but Gibney found a tape of it.

2004 was a breakout box office year for documentaries with anti-Bush “Fahrenheit 9/11” racking up more than $100 million -- a record for a non-fiction film.

“Smartest Guys” is tentatively set to hit theaters late this spring. While Gibney said he hopes for big ticket sales, more important to him is shedding light on the bankruptcy for a wide audience.

“It won’t be Democrats or Republicans,” he said. “It will be all sorts of people who are offended that a few people with a lot of money ended up doing very well, while the people at the bottom, ended up getting the shaft.”