Bad Energy

Bad Energy

Alex Gibney, Maryse Alberti expose corruption at the core of Enron scandal

Were “Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room” a screenwriting assignment, the teacher would probably give it a mixed grade.

There’s a clear, compelling arc and a dramatic structure. However, the Enron train wreck produced far more villains than heroes and its consequences—via the company’s malignant influence on California’s power industry––affected millions of people. There’s no one for the spectator to safely identity with, since the odd whistleblower or investigative journalist’s impact is dwarfed by Ken Lay and Jeffrey Skilling’s sheer arrogance. There are too many subplots and difficult concepts, like mark-to-market accounting.

Put simply, unlike Bill Clinton’s affair with Monica Lewinsky––which got massively more media attention––there’s no titillation.

We’re lucky that no script doctors touched “Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room.” As a narrative, it’s sometimes confusing, but Alex Gibney’s documentary does justice to a complex story and makes a larger point without shouting its political agenda from the rafters. Many recent politically minded documentaries, like Robert Greenwald’s well-argued but artless “Uncovered: The War on Iraq,” prize activism over aesthetics. By contrast, “Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room” pays attention to style.

Cinematographer Maryse Alberti shot Terry Zwigoff’s masterful “Crumb,” in addition to films by Richard Linklater and Todd Haynes. The staging of interviews in their subjects’ living rooms recalls that film. They’re attractively lit and framed. Alberti and Gibney love reflecting surfaces. Many TV clips play out on a monitor facing a black table, providing a mirror image of the news footage.

“Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room” follows the lead of Errol Morris in using reconstructions. The suicide of Enron executive Cliff Baxter is dramatized, as are mundane actions like using a calculator and shredding paper. Sometimes, the film is too slick for its own good, as when it throws in about 90 seconds of gyrating topless women to illustrate one executive’s fondness for strippers. The purpose of this relatively lengthy display of T & A escapes me––somehow, I doubt anyone came to see a documentary on Enron to get turned on.

For the most part, however, Gibney’s choices are well-selected. While Discovery Channel and History Channel programs often rely on vast amounts of cheesy reconstruction, “Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room” edits them and sets them to music effectively. The film succeeds as storytelling because it has the dimensions of a Greek tragedy. Lay and Jeffrey Skilling fell prey to their own hubris. While they’re the main villains of this tale, along with chief financial officer Andy Fastow, Gibney never lets us forget that their corruption couldn’t have gone on without the assistance of other Enron executives and outside accountants and lawyers. He gained access to internal audiotapes of Enron traders, which are chilling in their sheer chutzpah. These men clearly had contempt for the entire state of California. Although Lay and Skilling are more polite, they’re equally prone to making damaging statements.

These machinations had political, as well as economic, consequences––they are a large part of the reason California Gov. Gray Davis was recalled. Narrated by actor Peter Coyote, “Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room” isn’t a subjective documentary in the vein of Michael Moore or Nick Broomfield. Still, it has a real point of view, one lying to the left of the two Fortune writers whose book it is based on. It shares the perspective of last year’s documentary “The Corporation,” which damned corporate culture as an arena of psychopathology.

A Texan minister observes that many of the former Enron workers he counsels blame the general amorality afoot in society for their problems. The film may let Davis off the hook a little too easy and give a pass to other companies that profited from California’s energy market crisis. Its innuendo about Enron’s ties to Pres. George W. Bush is reminiscent of Moore at his worst.

Still, the film attacks systemic problems rather than blaming them on one or two bad guys. As a cautionary tale, it’s vital.