Among the participants: Enron CEO Jeff Skilling and a coven of his corporate acolytes.
"I like guys with spikes," says Skilling of the play-hard mentality drilled into his executive corps.
A former chubby, Skilling built a team of uber-frat boys at Enron. They approached sports the same way they approached business: with a kill-kill-kill mentality. The analogy to spoiled high-school princes crops up again and again, with a ruling-clique tribalism in Enron's cult of hyper-masculinity that included strip clubs, psychological blood sports and verbal fisticuffs.
Alex Gibney's documentary Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room is super scary, infuriating and perversely entertaining. Conscienceless executives, who would do American Psycho proud, sell their souls to the almighty greenback. Gibney's film is the ultimate exhilaratingly feel-bad drama for an America coming to terms with the scuzzy business practices that place shareholder profits above human decency.
The documentary is based on the best-selling Enron book, The Smartest Guys in the Room. Authors Bethany McLean and Peter Elkind (both Fortune magazine reporters) appear on-camera to lay down the foundation that the gung-ho Enron rested upon: Workers bowed down before the corporate daddies Skilling and Enron Chairman Kenneth Lay, who made profit their only God.
There are enough villains in this documentary to float the next three Star Wars franchises, from the obvious top executives who looted the corporate till, to the anonymous stormtrooper Enron traders, who played out their own Gordon Gekko Wall Street hardball fantasies.
For the white hats, there is Sherron Watkins, the astoundingly brave former Enron vice president and whistle blower. There's also McLean, the young Fortune reporter who saw cracks in the $65 billion empire early on. McLean tells the story of how she struck a blow to the Enron beast by asking the simple question of how the company made its money in her sweet, deceptively mild girly-girl voice.
The coda to the film, featuring an Enron underling who had his retirement nest egg decimated by the company's collapse, is a little too brief and breezy for a film buoyed by so much rage. Especially considering how many dreams - $2 billion in retirement pensions wiped out - were punctured by Enron executives' greed.
Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room is largely the story of one company's operatic crash on a phantom foundation of inflated stock value. But it's also an indictment of an often sociopathic way of doing business in America: where making money is easily divorced from ethics, and the national religion is cash flow. The film makes clear that with the involvement of banks and investors ranging from Deutsche Bank and Enron's Arthur Andersen accountants to the Bush dynasty, Enron is not the story of one rogue corporation acting alone.
But what's surprising in this high-irony lefty doc is how often morality gets batted around. The film's opening shot depicts Enron's corporate headquarters in a steel-and-glass Houston skyscraper. At its base, a church steeple proclaims "Jesus Saves." There are bookends of religious condemnation from that opening image to the parting shot of a Houston priest, who talks about how many at Enron "lost their souls." Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room suggests there may be hell to pay later.
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