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Category:    Home > Reviews > Documentary > Political > Financial > Enron: The Smartest Guys In The Room (Magnolia DVD)

Enron: The Smartest Guys In The Room

 

Picture: C+     Sound: C+     Extras: B     Documentary: A

 

 

Those who come out and criticize deregulation never explain why there was regulation to begin with.  For one thing, as corporations became larger, checks and balances had to be put in place to make certain nothing disastrous happened.  The Great Depression going back in 1929 is an impetus for this, as The United States stumbled into the Industrial Age with the freedom of the 1920s followed by a very dark period only challenged by the darkness that was World War II.  When there was innovation, sometimes it came from big companies and other times, smaller ones.  By the 1970s, new ideas of macromanagement had arrived and the social revolution of the 1960s led to another open period like the 1970s.  When the 1980s wanted to end that, those intending to roll back the clock had to undo those checks and balances.  Enron: The Smartest Guys In The Room (2005) is a tale of the worse thing that has happened so far from these actions.

 

It is the tale of a culture of cutthroat capitalism by any means necessary versus the better-regulated (if still rough) capitalism of the pre-1980s.  Between many mergermania periods where massive wealth came into the hands of fewer and fewer people, a combination of driving some companies out of business that could not be (or may have been conceived as not worth buying) went hand in hand with what could or should be purchased.  In other cases, many family mom and pop operations just called it quits, as new generations with money from those companies (and legacies) no longer were interested in being involved.  Enron was an energy company that was started from scratch to take advantage of the deregulation with no ties to the past, at least until later, when they would buy a company here or there to legitimize the dark truth of what was not happening at the company.

 

Created in the mid-1980s, it became one of the biggest publicly held companies of all time and set new standards for inflating a stock share value at all costs, but in ways that would not have been tolerated as much even seven to ten years prior to their advent.  They would just keep coming up with crazy ideas perpetrated by a culture that exploited the enthusiasm of employees and stockholders that you were a huge winner by just being a participant.  Director Alex Gibney (see The Trials Of Henry Kissinger elsewhere on this site, which he wrote and produced) combines any such footage he could get of corporate propaganda with amazing amounts of interviews, shareholder meetings, text, awards, hype and other now-ironic items that were ahead of their time in taking advantage of the enthusiasm and implied trust millions had in American Capitalism, only to see the company collapse.

 

The story is so ugly and unprecedented in the self-denial of so many and outright deceit of key players that it is really incredible something physically violent and even fatal has not broken out between the persons most closely involved, namely those who got cheated out of billions of dollars versus those who stole them.  We see footage where some of those who “know something” try to claim that the money and wealth built up is “all gone” as if people who suffered are supposed to believe that and go away and die with that misery as if it were the truth.  Then there are those who keep lying and say the collapse just “happened” as if nothing can be done about it and how it is just “unfortunate” it did happen, as if the company was honest and true blue 100% of the time.  This is to keep a sick lie alive so those who had their hearts and hoped on the company will keep living the lie that they almost had it all when they absolutely did not.

 

Without being preachy, heavy-handed or taking sides, something those who are furious with former Enron executives will not be happy about, the documentary shows otherwise just how much betrayal was going on.  It shows how the company had not been making money for years, but conned (or in a few cases, bought off) the entire economic establishment with arrogance and fake paper profits to keep over- inflating what was a worthless company and venture with no soul.  Every industry they entered to “innovate” with “new ideas” about making money in various energy fields that they were destroying the integrity and darkly manipulating instead.  This includes the truth about the rolling blackouts in California, which the film addresses in particular detail.

 

The film is also wise to go out of its way to be detailed in every aspect, interview as many people as possible, dig up as much audio and video footage as possible (including plenty that was meant to be destroyed and lost forever) and try to point out that this is only maybe the beginning of something worse.  That Enron will not be the last Enron, but another scandal like BCCI, The Savings & Loan guttings or Pension Gate in which generations of hard earned wealth are being hoarded by a combination of old elitists and aggressive newcomers willing to join them to become instantly rich as long as they tow a party line, betray history, other people, the public trust, The United States and hope their powerful friends will make their punishments next to nothing as long as they ruin the progress of The New Deal, The Great Society, the community, opportunity, innovation, economic progress from Civil Rights, progress of consumer rights and anything else to bring things down for a quick buck as if that was all that mattered.  But it is not, because this is about power and politics in a way the film does not begin to address directly.  By default however, it speaks volumes about how this country went wrong in the face of Neo-Conservatism and how the worse implications and results of it have just begun.

 

The anamorphically enhanced 1.78 X 1/16 X 9 image originated in digital High Definition, but the footage used is various and that includes plenty of analog NTSC video, which is often degraded or stylized to make a point of things getting worse.  Gibney is a bit more impressed by HD that he should be, as seen by one too many holding shots, confirmed by his commentary comments.  He sees HD as if he had never seen a good film, print before, much like those who jump from VHS and Beta to better DVDs without having seen better analog playback, better 12” LaserDisc transfers or early HD and think video is as good as film.  Still, the shooting and editing of Enron and its headquarter buildings as an amusement park construction made to fool the world is very clear.  The Dolby Digital 5.1 mix is not awful, but so much of the material is simple stereo or monophonic that it can only offer so much, with surrounds often used only for well-chosen hit songs.  The combination is engaging enough, though we have seen some recent documentaries that have technically performed better in either or both respects.

 

Extras includes trailers for this and other HDNet features, a solid full-length feature audio commentary by Gibney, a 14-minutes-long featurette on the making of, a nearly three minutes where are they now (updated constantly at www.chron.com/enron and an additional section of site to visit elsewhere in the extras with a plug for the book and soundtrack companions to this documentary), deleted/extended scenes, separate conversations with journalist Bethany McLean (7:33) & Peter Elkind (5:03), the installment from HDNet’s Higher Definition series showing this off, comedy troop Firesign Theatre’s great take on the fall of the company for radio is only 3:10 but up to their usual high standards, Gibney reading the skits (4:26) within the corporate propaganda the company used as distraction, a gallery of political cartoons sending up Enron and three articles from Fortune Magazine you can read the text of frame by frame.

 

For a single DVD, this is one of the most loaded for any feature we have seen to date and is the epitome of excellence on how to do so.  That is no surprise considering what is here to back up.  Without a doubt, even with Expo and Murderball in mind, Enron: The Smartest Guys In The Room is the best documentary of 2005 and one that will just become more important and more important as things get worse.  If there ever was a must-see DVD, this is it.

 

 

-   Nicholas Sheffo


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