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‘Smartest Guys’ a fascinating look at Enron

Documentary looks at the men behind the notorious corporate scandal
/ Source: The Associated Press

With “Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room,” writer-director Alex Gibney takes a notorious tale of corporate greed and plays it as Greek tragedy, Texas-style.

The approach reveals him to be one of the smart guys, too. By focusing his documentary on the people behind the Enron scandal — their foibles, follies and moral frailty — Gibney takes a potentially dry, daunting topic and turns it into something eminently compelling.

The shredded documents, the private equity funds, the false accounting reports that contributed to the downfall of the nation’s seventh-largest company — all that can be stultifying stuff. But the filmmaker, working from the book “The Smartest Guys in the Room” by Fortune magazine reporters Bethany McLean and Peter Elkind, instead turns his attention to the human and inhumane aspects of Enron Corp.’s 2001 collapse that we can relate to, without ever dumbing down the story.

Gibney gives us corporate cowboys like Jeff Skilling, Enron’s former CEO, who transformed himself from weakling to weekend warrior and instilled in his employees a Darwinian culture of testosterone and one-upmanship.

There are pathetic figures like Lou Pai, an ex-executive with a proclivity for lap dances who left his wife for his stripper girlfriend who had his baby (though with his Enron fortune, he also became one of the biggest landowners in Colorado).

There are the trader drones who, drunk with their own misguided sense of power, toyed with California’s energy supplies for profit and sport. (And the tape recordings of their phone conversations with each other are stunning for their brazenness. “Burn, baby, burn,” one guy laughs as swaths of the state are engulfed in wildfires. “You gotta love the West,” says another.)

Ken Lay, the leader of them all, comes off as completely disingenuous when he suggests he couldn’t possibly have known every little detail about the company he founded, the motto of which ironically was, “Ask Why.” Either that or he’s in denial. (He and Skilling are set to go on trial next year for fraud and conspiracy charges. Both have pleaded innocent.)

At the heart of the film, though, are the everyday employees and investors who trusted the Houston-based energy company with their financial security and were left in ruin, while many Enron honchos walked away with millions. One electrical lineman had $348,000 in his 401(k) and company stock, and ended up cashing out with just $1,200.

Gibney tells all their stories through a lively mix of news footage, re-enactments, corporate video, interviews with employees and insider audio recordings.

Simultaneously eye-opening and entertaining, “The Smartest Guys in the Room” recalls the best aspects of Michael Moore’s movies, complete with an accompanying soundtrack of appropriate songs to punctuate every misdeed and misadventure. Phantom Planet’s “California,” the theme from the glossy nighttime soap “The O.C.” plays during a section about the state’s rolling blackouts. “Son of a Preacher Man” by Dusty Springfield heralds the start of a segment about Lay’s Baptist upbringing.

But Gibney’s film thankfully lacks the stench of personal vendetta that too often marks Moore’s work. He also refrains from inserting himself in the action; actor Peter Coyote serves as narrator.

One complaint, though: It would have been nice if Gibney had said on camera, as he does in the film’s production notes, that he tried repeatedly to get Skilling to comment and was turned down. (Same with Lay.) Supposedly Skilling wanted to talk — and is a heck of a talker — but his lawyers wouldn’t allow it.

Which ultimately leaves us asking: Were these people just greedy, and they got in over their heads? Were they truly, deeply evil? Or were they, as the title suggests, simply too smart for their own good? It’s an impossible question to answer, and Gibney is wise not to try, but he does paint a vivid, tragic, startling portrait of how the best and brightest of American corporate culture can go horribly wrong.