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‘Enron’: the greediest guys in the room

Stewart Oksenhorn
Former Enron CEO Jeff Skilling appears in the documentary Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room, showing Friday through Sunday at the Wheeler Opera House.
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With the media getting battered from above – the Bush administration blaming a possibly inaccurate bit in Newsweek for deaths in Afghanistan – and below – a recent report found that Americans distrusts the media more than it does politicians – there is room for journalistic heroes. Even if those heroes are mild-mannered nerds with no glamorous alter ego underneath their business suits, and even if the villains they vanquish use such tools of mass destruction as pens and off-book partnerships.The heroes of “Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room,” a documentary about the crash and burn of what was the seventh-largest company in the United States, are reporters Bethany McLean and Peter Elkind. Not only do the two numbers-oriented journalists tally up the fraud and other faults of Enron on screen, but Alex Gibney’s film is based on their 2003 book, “The Smartest Guys in the Room: The Amazing Rise and Scandalous Fall of Enron.”

McLean and Elkind never gain superhero status in the film. All the good guys – a lineup of outraged senators, lawyers and whistle-blowers as well as reporters – are somewhat muted. That’s because the story of Enron is more the story of its bad guys, who truly do rise to the level of comic-book super-villainy. The collapse of Enron under the weight of its crooked culture was inevitable. Had McLean not sniffed around and put the wrecking ball in motion, another analyst or banker or SEC investigator would have.In the documentary, the so-called smartest guys practically line themselves up as an outlaw posse, each filling a stock role. Ken Lay is the head-in-the-sand chairman who dons the pious guise of a preacher – in fact, Lay is a preacher’s son – to claim that he couldn’t possibly have known of the rogue elements in his midst. Never mind that Enron, from the bottom brick, encouraged and celebrated a culture of greed and deception. CEO Jeff Skilling is the twisted mastermind, combining a genius for fraudulent business practices and a veneer of machismo to overcome his nerdy past. CFO Andrew Fastow is Skilling’s pit bull pup, a wannabe Master of the Universe whose financial know-how and lack of moral compass made it unnecessary for his master to give him detailed instructions on sham transactions.The fact that this trio is already so well-known takes much of the sting out of “The Smartest Guys in the Room.” Gibney has done a good job of assembling footage, including damning video from Enron’s own vaults, that capture the culture of the company, the eventual explosion and its fallout. The film is entertaining enough; rarely does it teeter towards accountant-speak, and when it does, Gibney moves on quickly.

The juiciest, slimiest character is a relatively little-known one, Lu Pi. The geekiest of Enron execs is a strip-club fanatic, who once brought some dancers to his office to prove he was a big shot. The film includes the tidbit that Pi, who cashed out early, became the second-largest landowner in Colorado.Apart from the story of Pi, the most affecting segment is how Enron’s manipulation of electricity markets caused California’s blackouts in 2001. At a public meeting, Skilling is hit with a blueberry pie; California Gov. Gray Davis wails against both Enron’s trickery (caught in audio tapes that leave no room for doubt) and the Bush administration’s hands-off approach. (For his troubles, Davis was recalled in favor of Arnold Schwarzenegger.)

One of the better bits of the film is the use of music: “Love For Sale” when Enron execs pump themselves up for stock analysts; “Dear Mr. Fantasy” when Fastow’s scheme for disguising massive losses as gains is introduced. Most appropriate of all is Tom Waits’ “God’s Away on Business” as the closing text tallies up the final personal, economic and legal damage. But a clever soundtrack doesn’t disguise the fact that this is largely a summation of a story and lesson we have already heard.”Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room” shows Friday through Sunday, May 27-29, at the Wheeler Opera House. Magnolia Pictures presents a documentary written and directed by Alex Gibney. Narrated by Peter Coyote. No MPAA rating, 110 minutes. Stewart Oksenhorn’s e-mail address is stewart@aspentimes.com


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