"Independent Lens" Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room (TV Episode 2005) Poster

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9/10
In the dictionary next to "hubris"....
bitcetc25 April 2005
One powerful theme in "The Smartest Guys in the Room" is expressly articulated and repeated for emphasis: this is the story of people, not arcane financial accounting methods or numbers, and because it is people, it can happen again. Enron is just the manifestation of the evil begotten by hubris, in spectacularly public fashion. It is classic Greek tragedy, and it is one from which its chief protagonists, Ken Lay and Jeff Skilling, must not escape.

Yes, it is a movie with a point of view, but this is not a Michael Moore documentary. Director Alex Gibney brilliantly tells the story simply by interviewing people who were participants in the events, showing the time lines of those events, and interweaving an astonishing amount of video and audio footage taped at Enron, by Enron itself. The movie resolved for me the question: "What did they know, and when did they know it?" They knew. They not only knew; they designed the company to be the ultimate shell game, with no pea. The only thing Enron ever had to sell was its stock price. And they did know that was their only product.

As a Houstonian, I admit that I, a supposedly sophisticated business professional, was intimidated by Enron's assertion in its glory days that the reason I didn't understand its business was just that I wasn't smart enough. My friends, managers and lawyers, some from Harvard thenselves, also admit to the same intimidation. It was not that the questions were not being asked; it was just that we were silenced when Enron avowed that they were the smartest guys in the room. They asserted it, and we believed them. Thank good Fortune that one reporter, Bethany McLean, in almost too soft a voice to be credible as a giant killer, kept asking.

I wish this movie might inspire a larger remedy than the one being attempted by the Department of Justice. Why doesn't Harvard deny admission to people like Jeff Skilling, who, when questioned in his entrance interview whether he was smart, replied, "I'm (expletive deleted) smart"? Why isn't some humility and modesty still ranked a virtue? Why do we celebrate the rise of the specialist educated only in his field, and wholly ignorant of the inevitability of the fall of the Greek protagonist who becomes blinded by arrogance, power, greed---- in short, hubris? Why is ethics a specialty study, instead of integral to every field of study? I sat open-mouthed as the tape showed Jeff Skilling seriously selling a new business idea: selling futures in the weather. He parodied himself on tape: he had a new, better idea than the "mark to market" booking which allowed Enron to book future theoretical profits once they had signed a deal; now he would institute "hypothetical to book", booking profits as soon as he had an idea. What, ultimately, was the difference between the parody and the reality? The horror of listening to traders, who sat in a room directly below Ken Lay and Jeff Skilling, with staircases between their executive offices and the trading floor, laughing at the misery they were inflicting on California as they extorted profits from that misery, leaves me outraged long after the movie is over. They threatened and may have cost lives with their fraudulent tactics. They admit it on tape, laughing. They knew. It was their business plan. To make Andrew Fastow the scapegoat for what Enron was developing as its business plan before he was ever hired is simply the continuation of the shell game with no pea. Look for the "designated fall guy". They still think they are the smartest guys in the room.

No, I'll never be selected for the jury pool now, but I wouldn't have been anyway. I'll buy the DVD and watch it a few times during the trials and seethe, lest I forget. Excellent movie, the best kind of documentary.
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10/10
An American Tragedy
writeon_susan9 August 2005
This film is a profoundly entertaining chronicle of American corporate power run amok. Profound because as it dramatizes the rise and fall of Enron, the film casts a longer shadow over the still largely unchanged corporate environment that spawned this smoke and mirrors company. Entertaining due to clever use of storytelling devices, imagery and soundtrack, despite what looks to be a low budget.

The film's strength is in its portrait of the massive "group think" inside and outside of the corporation that supported Enron's rise. It is astounding and chilling to look back on the cheer leading role played by banks, financial media, accounting firms and government. And though Enron, the film, may be weak on explaining how the company built itself up from a simple gas pipeline business to a post-modern corporate megalith, it was probably a wise choice to leave detailed descriptions of the financial manipulations to the book of the same name. The film, does though, miss an opportunity early on to provide a basic explanation of the central paradox of Enron -- earning heaps of money by exploiting commodities trading and accounting methods, while losing heaps of money in real world ventures. Enron set up its first commodities trading desk to capitalize on inside knowledge of the gas business, and then tried to replicate this model with water, broadband, electricity, etc. In actually a trading firm, Enron evaded investment firm regulations by portraying itself as an industrial firm.

Yet, despite some shortcomings, the storytelling is powerful, especially the eye-opening dramatization of Enron's role and the political manipulations behind the California energy-crisis. After viewing the suffering of average Californians, juxtaposed against the callousness of Enron's West Coast energy traders, it felt good to see Kenneth Lay walking in handcuffs.

More than once, the phrase, "this can happen again," echos in the film. It has happened before -- leveraged buyouts, the Savings and Loan crisis, the burst Internet IPO bubble, the 1920s Stock Market crash. A new financial vehicle generates untold riches for some, goes bust, and millions, sometimes billions ... disappear. Enron, the film, is the textbook on how one corporation recently stole from investors, employees and its "customers."

Ask why do we keep on letting this happen.
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9/10
The saddest thing I've seen in a long time...
scouts28 March 2005
Warning: Spoilers
Though this movie certainly has some amusing points, it's far from a wacky thrill ride where we are finally able to laugh at the hijinks of a group of people who defrauded tens of thousands of people out of their jobs and their livelihoods. On the contrary, watching people like Lay, Skilling and Fastow defend themselves, their motives and the end result of their mutual greed is at times a sickening display of what people can do when allowed.

Gibney's film is as light-hearted as it can possibly be while still maintaining the integrity needed to realize that the story is no laughing matter. Quite simply, it is a tale of what happens when the bullies take over the playground with their eyes on taking over the school. On a larger note, it points the finger not only at the headline-making executives whom we have all come to know, but at every single other person who willingly allowed it to happen. From the employees and the traders who sacrificed others in order to save themselves, to the banks and the politicians who turned a blind eye in the name of profit, the movie forces us to ask ourselves where culpability and accountability meet.

Is everyone to blame if no one intervened? Interestingly, in a movie filled to the brim with gluttony and arrogance, there's a shimmering hope in the faces of the few people who helped in bringing the scandal to light: Bethany McLean, co-author of the book upon which the movie was based gives a precise and fantastic interview; Sherron Watkins, Enron Vice President (and whistle-blower) repeatedly tries to steer the company in the right direction to no avail; and the one trader who stood up to the company when it's numbers clearly didn't jive, losing his job in the process. Seeing a small handful of people make such a large difference is the tiny bit of inspiration gained from this film, though it really only begs the question of why so few people stood up in a building jam-packed with people who had everything to lose.
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8/10
An Entertaining Introduction to A Business Scandal that Affects Everyone
noralee2 June 2005
"Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room" is an excellent introduction for the general public to the scandal for someone who didn't hear first-hand the warnings about the New Economy that sneered at the responsibilities of a public company or read the articles in Fortune, Wall Street Journal, NY Times, or Business Week while it was all building up, then come tumbling down.

While the film leaves out some of the technicalities, it does an entertaining job of combining talking heads, lively graphics, news clips, incendiary dramatizations (such as of busy, noisy shredders), company documents and whistleblower-obtained stunningly damning audiotapes, web broadcasts and video tapes to document how a major company could grow out of smoke and mirrors to become the largest bankruptcy of its time, bringing down countless victims with it.

Establishing an arresting time line that serves like a ticking clock, the film is excellent at visually demonstrating how other corporations, particularly lenders and brokerages, profited from not revealing the truth.

The filmmakers particularly gleefully accent the company's political connections, going beyond the popular "Kenny Boy" friendship of CEO Ken Lay with George W. to extend to the Bush clan and inner circle, including the Federal Reserve's Greenspan, to hone in on how it fomented self-serving deregulatory policies, with a special emphasis on California and its frighteningly manipulated energy, and resulting political, crisis.

The filmmakers do make some of the talking heads seem objective when they actually have their own profitable axes to grind, such as shareholder attorney William Lerarch, and let the Johnny-come-lately legislators look a little too good as they puff up at the Congressional hearings.

A bit too much is made of the executives as former nerds, as these guys weren't computer geeks; rather there were class issues at work that are hinted at in the brief biographies in the culture of traders who were entrepreneurally lifting their incomes by gambling. At the same time, whistleblower Sherron Watkins's actions and motivations are not emphasized as particularly heroic in going against the company's macho culture (the many Deep Throats cited in the credits as anonymous sources are amusing).

A delightful range of popular music is also used to emphasize points, from Tom Waits to "God Bless the Child," as well as popular culture references from "The Simpsons" to "Gordon Gekko"'s defining quote also keep the film from just being like a dry episode of PBS's "Frontline". I presume the title itself is meant to recall the classic laying bare of the men who got the U.S. mired in the Viet Nam War, Halberstam's "The Best and The Brightest." The film does slight the clear-eyed folks who were warning about the declining ethics in the accounting profession and the lack of fundamentals in the bubble investments as Enron and its ilk were on the way up -- and who were vilified in the business community for their Cassandra pronouncements.

The film does make the Enron situation seem too unique. While personalizing the stories around the head people at the company --especially as they transformed from geeks to power brokers --makes the story easier to follow in a movie, it makes this corporate culture unusual. It also lets off the management consultants, let alone the business schools' emphasis on stock price analysis, who were cheerleaders for these techniques; McKinsey and Harvard spawned at least one of the colorful figures profiled here.

This kind of egotistical "I'm top of the world, Ma" attitude in business was also typical of the Rigas at Adelphia in Pennsylvania, Ebbers at WorldCom in Mississippi, and Scrushy at HealthSouth in Birmingham, Alabama, and the just dethroned Greenberg at AIG scandal in the heart of Wall Street, shows that enough chutzpah and money can deflect anyone, anywhere, using the same techniques -- a ruthless, macho corporate culture that forces out anyone who disagrees, browbeating regulators, hiding secret accounts and spreading around manipulative corporate philanthropy.

At a NY Financial Writers' Association panel as the Enron story was breaking, they did an introspection that unfortunately is not provided by the film, on why they didn't report earlier that the emperor had no clothes (as one of the sub-chapters in the film puts it). The consensus was that the journalists realized they mistrusted the motives of the warners more than they doubted the motives of the corporate executives who were issuing the bravado reports and deflecting timid questions, even though the journalists too late realized that the executives had way more to gain than the Chicken Littles and they were intimidated by their own lack of accounting expertise to recognize the sliding slope of accounting ethics (though the film does very briefly touch on how the CPAs early on accommodated the bubble by too easily officially approving the now notorious "mark to marketing" accounting procedure that permitted the booking of goods not yet obtained, though there's no mention of casually lax acceptance of external auditing firms to simultaneously do internal auditing and profitable consulting).

McLean, a co-writer of the film whose book is the premise for most of the film, did supplement the film in an interview on Charlie Rose that should be included on the DVD by naming the "shorter" (an investor who gains if prices go down) who first had tipped her off, though she didn't there mention the local Houston business reporter she cited at the panel who was the very first one to report suspicion of Enron's numbers. She also clarified on the show that while her article in Business Week is now seen as the beginning of Enron's end, her actual findings were very mildly stated, particularly compared to the full truth as it came out, and only aroused suspicions by the ferocity of the company's denials.

Even as the film concludes with an it could happen again warning, with no analysis if Sarbanes-Oxley will help, it places too much emphasis on the uniqueness of Enron.
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10/10
Harvard Professor to student "How smart are you?" "I'm *@#% smart", Jeff Skilling
jotix10027 May 2005
"Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room" directed by Alex Gibney takes a moment to explain in vivid detail about the rise and the fall of that giant of giants, Enron. Based on the book by Bethany McLean and Peter Elkin, this documentary holds the viewer glued to the seat because one cannot believe, for a moment, what one is watching on the screen.

The great debacle of the beginning of the century was the Enron downfall. At the same time, it is a cautionary tale for a lot of people about the way some unscrupulous manipulators can wreck havoc in the lives of the people that give their lives working for a any corporation. The Enron workers paid the ultimate price because a few people at the top had an unstoppable greed.

Mr. Gibney is smart in presenting the facts without taking sides. The director is not making a moral judgment at all, he is just letting us absorb how Enron operated and how it was able to pull the wool over everyone's eyes in believing this was the greatest company in the world.

Not only did Enron go down, but it took the Arthur Anderson accounting firm as well. There are thousands of people that are victims of this reckless disregard for the people under these scheming executives, who thought of nothing, but themselves. It's ironic that Jeff Skilling is paying more than twenty million dollars for his own defense, and who knows how much more will Kenneth Lay and Andy Fastow pay to star lawyers in their legal processes.

Ultimately, the real winner seems to be the oriental executive, whose name I don't recall, with an appetite for strippers who ended up being the biggest landowner in Colorado and now is living happily ever after in Hawaii. Compare that picture with the people the Enron workers who lost it all and must now make ends meet with little.

The Enron tragedy should be taught at Harvard as Greed 101, or how to get away with murder in America.
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10/10
Wow - gotta see it again to believe it!
nstorm8927 April 2005
I caught this documentary by chance on HDNET. I was VERY surprised and riveted for the two hours. Finance is my life. I am astounded at the massive amount of apparent complicity on parade with this story. The tremendous greed and bold face lies demonstrated as the story took its turns are the makings of the best thriller novels (sadly, this brings new meaning to "Reality TV"). I've been thinking about this since Friday: these are some of our best and brightest - what ever happened to their ethics, their honesty? It appears that too many were compromised get get their piece of the action. Big Action!~ I have the feeling this is only the tip of the iceberg at Enron - however, the movie is a tremendous collection of some VERY interesting events. Hats off to Bethany, Peter and Alex for a great movie.
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10/10
This movie is a must-see
gracie2827 April 2005
The documentary "The Smartest Guys in the Room" is based on the excellent book by Bethany McClean and Peter Elkind. If you work for an American corporation, have ever owned stock in a corporation, or have mutual funds, you must see this movie. It gives a clear eyed view of what can happen in our society when greed really is considered good. The movie accomplishes what few in this genre have done: It is informative and also entertaining. Some of this is due to the behavior of Enron executives. For example, one frequented strip clubs every night and made his staff come along. Naturally that requires video of strippers. Some of the most damning video is from Enron execs themselves. They never dreamt they would be caught. Hubris gone wild. Go see this movie. Take friends with you. You will be glad you did. First rate film all around.
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Boys gone amok
shifraleah16 April 2005
I just saw this movie at Talk Cinema in Philadelphia. It was an excellent depiction of hubris and greed. The clips of Ken Lay et all were self serving and only seemed to intensify their greed. I would have liked more exploration in to the ties with the Bush Dynasty but that said it was an interesting intense film. Definitely one that I would be happy to recommend. There is one critique I would make is that although the film touched on the many lives that were ruined by the Enron Scandle,it did not give them a real human face.

In the eighties we called people like the Enron Executives "Masters of the Universe." Now we can call at as we see it, Over grown former nerds with no morality and no conscience.

.
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8/10
Energetic Hubris.
jdesando11 May 2005
"Ask why" was the mantra of one of the most remarkable companies in the history of modern society: Enron. And not one, not even the venerable accounting firm of Arthur Anderson, asked that question. So the little energy company that could amassed billions of dollars through deceptive accounting practices, mainly by stating profit based on future earnings (HFV=hypothetical future value) and shipping losses to offshore shell companies.

Alex Gibney's absorbing documentary, based on the book co-authored by the first prominent whistle blower and Enron executive, Bethany McLean, begins with the tragic concept of the pervasive fatal flaw, hubris, and applies it meticulously to the tragic figures Ken Lay, Andrew Skilling, and Andrew Fastow. Tragic in the sense that those talented executives allowed the company to fall while they lined their pockets with the assets of its 20, 000 employees, countless investors, and the state of California, which suffered mammoth losses due to its new energy deregulation and manipulation of that energy by Enron.

The documentary succeeds in explaining the crimes while lacing the story with just enough drama to make suspenseful the outcome we all know before we view the film: Fastow is doing time, Lay and Skilling await trial, former employees work past their retirement ages because their pensions have been gobbled up by the crimes, and California now regulates its energy but still suffers from massive deficit.

The documentary fails when it manipulates its audience with background songs that dramatize the obvious ironies, e.g.' "Son of a Preacher Man" plays during Lay's biography. Such skewering is almost impossible to avoid once a documentarian picks up a camera and selects the images; what he doesn't have to do is underscore the irony—The players will do it all on their own. It also seems to hold back on the cozy relationship between Lay and the Bush family. Perhaps another time.

Meanwhile, this documentary is compelling viewing of a tragedy about a company, as one of the talking heads describes, that was "a house of cards . . . built over a pool of gasoline." It is enjoyable to see it figuratively torched like the House of Wax.
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10/10
Why didn't anyone ask why?
lastliberal22 January 2006
Yes, it is about numbers. I know that is hard for some to take. In fact, I know that some people don't want to hear about intricate financial details. That is very evident by the voting patterns here in America. But, Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room is more about people. The characters that led Enron to its downfall are really interesting and come across in a way that, if you weren't watching them in a documentary, you would want to watch a movie about them.

The unholy trinity of Ken Lay, Jeff Skilling and Andy Fastow managed to manipulate the numbers, manipulate the stock analysts, manipulate the press, and manipulate the financial institutions to a point that is just beyond belief. The corporate motto was "Ask why." A whole lot of people outside the corporation failed to ask why, or crumbled like the White House press corps when they were getting smoke blown up their skirts.

Two things really stand out in this film besides the three people mentioned. The employees of Enron themselves for the most part didn't see the crumbling of the company because they just didn't want to add things up.

Also, this movie is rated "R" for some brief nudity and for the language of the traders handling the California energy mess. When you hear those traders who took down the California energy grid, you would agree that this film should have been rated XXX. It was just plain obscene to listen to the greed and callousness of these traders.

The bottom line is that every voter who goes to the polls in 2006 without seeing this film first is just plain irresponsible. But that is just my opinion.
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8/10
Excellent, lucid documentary on a complex subject
WriConsult6 July 2005
Warning: Spoilers
As is often the case, many of the greatest stories are truth, rather than fiction. If you made this up, no one would believe you -- yet it happened just the same. The history of Enron is traced from its beginnings though its eventual collapse, with lots of great footage of the main players in action.

I think this film's most telling observations were (1) that every quarter it appeared to the line-level employees as if they wouldn't make their numbers, yet at the end of the quarter somehow they always did, and (2) once they started fudging the numbers, Enron's financial wizards found they had to keep lying, and the lies had to keep getting bigger: if they stopped lying their change in outlook would be noticed, and all the previous lies would be exposed. This was also true of the banks and auditors involved, who once they approved the first lie had to keep going along with it or their complicity would be exposed.

As an economist and a Pacific Northwesterner, I was glued to the Western energy crisis as it unfolded. I'm going to discuss the content and context of the movie in some detail here.

Enron already had the ability to dramatically limit the supply of power, both at the generating and at the transmission level, but the winter of 2000-01 presented the perfect alignment of circumstances. First, Washington and Oregon had our worst drought in years, which cut way back on our power supply, which is mostly hydroelectric. Historically hydro power has been abundant, so electric heating is common here, and even in a normal winter we buy California's surplus to heat our homes, returning our surplus to them in the summer when they need it for A/C. Usually that's a good deal all around -- but thanks to Enron, California didn't have a surplus, exactly when we needed it most.

The second thing that happened was that an Enron-friendly administration was elected to power. Ken Lay was a good personal friend of GWB (and not just George Sr., as an earlier reviewer stated), frequently attended family picnics and was affectionately referred to as "Kenny Boy" by GWB. His company was the largest single contributor to Bush's election. At the height of the crisis, Dick Cheney (who had just met with Lay the previous day) testified against the imposition of price controls. This directly resulted in billions of additional profits to Enron and billions of additional costs to Westerners. It was only through later imposition of those very price controls that the crisis ever came to an end, because they removed Enron's incentive to limit supply.

Kudos to the movie for not sugar-coating these facts, because it's important to understand that IS how politics works. This kind of complicity happens on both sides of the aisle, but there's no escaping the fact that in this particular scandal it was Republican politicians who were complicit. This may make the movie appear biased to some, but the facts in this case are irrefutable. Here's another tidbit not covered in the movie: As chair of the federal Commodity Futures Trading Commission, Wendy Gramm (wife of Texas Senator Phill Gramm, a major Enron recipient) ruled in 1992 to exempt Enron's energy-trading scheme from federal regulation -- and shortly afterward was appointed to Enron's board of directors.

In fairness to the other side, Gray Davis completely bungled Calfornia's response to the crisis, creating unnecessary additional debt for the state -- but still, his worst crime was incompetence, not complicity, since it was on Republican Pete Wilson's watch that California's so-called "deregulation" was signed into law. Two friends of mine who are energy economists (one of whom worked for PG&E, the other of whom is a Libertarian) looked closely at California's plan at the time and warned of the disaster to come. It was predictable. It was Wilson who should have borne the consequences.

The third thing that happened -- and was not mentioned in much detail in the film -- was that 2001 was a year when a particularly large number of long-term energy contracts were to be renegotiated. These contracts are typically for 7 year terms, so the wholesale price in effect at the time of contract renewal is the price that stays in effect for 7 years. So despite the fact that wholesale prices have returned to some semblance of normalcy, Enron managed to lock in a lot of its buyers at inflated prices for the next 7 years. Which means this is not just a historical crisis. Westerners (not just Californians) will be paying billions of dollars for inflated electricity for several more years to come.

All in all, I can forgive this movie its omissions (not emphasizing that it wasn't just California who got screwed, leaving out Wendy Gramm, etc.). Those are side notes that should be of interest to anyone with a deep interest in these events, but this movie is already crammed full of facts and there's no need to lengthen it. It's hard to miss the point, and hard to miss the irony that the company whose tagline was "Ask Why?" was brought down by someone who asked that very question. 8/10.
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8/10
'Twas hubris killed the beast
anhedonia29 January 2006
The chief characters in the Enron debacle all seemed to be functioning on the same mantra, that Gordon Gekko line from "Wall Street" (1987) that epitomized the 1980s: "Greed, for the lack of a better word, is good." Except what Ken Lay, Jeff Skilling and Andy Fastow did wasn't in the 1980s, but in this century and they blithely and without any compunction did it for personal gain while tens of thousands were left with nothing.

The Enron scandal was a tough one to understand, at least to me it was, because you could never quite figure out what Enron did. And director Alex Gibney breaks it all down matter-of-factly, never taking sides, never being judgmental, to show us what happened. Of course, he really doesn't need to be judgmental because the actions of Lay, Skilling and Fastow (and a few others) speak volumes.

Gibney's film very well could have been a convoluted mess. But he never loses sight of the fact that this is essentially a story about people. Not only the masters of the universe whose hubris eventually brought them down but, more importantly, the people whose livelihoods depended on what Lay, Fastow and Skilling did and who, unlike those three, didn't have millions to fall back on.

It's impossible not to feel incensed by what they did. Lay, Fastow and Skilling destroyed countless lives, yet they left with millions. There's a moment when Lay bemoans that his net worth dipped from $20 million to, I believe, $6 million. Yeah, tell that to the Oregonian utility worker, whose $340,000 nest egg was eventually only worth $1,200 after Enron stock tumbled in the wake of the scandal.

What's ultimately devastating about this film is listening to the tapes of Enron traders joking about how they were holding California hostage and letting people there suffer without electricity. These chaps are cold, callous and exemplify the Enron environment.

This is a fascinating film because it exposes these guys for who they are. And after listening to those interviewed in this film, it's impossible to believe Lay and Skilling were somehow oblivious to it all. How else could you explain why they insisted Enron employees invest in the company stock while they themselves were cashing out?

What's equally infuriating is realizing how Wall Street sucked up to Enron and how investment firms turned on anyone who dared to question Enron's power.

Of course, it's not surprising at all to see Lay's connections to the Bush family. But I am certain Dubya really didn't know very well someone he called "Kenny Boy." Just as, I'm sure, W's photos with Jack Abramoff mean absolutely nothing, either.

There's a moment in "Wall Street" when Bud Fox asks Gordon, "How much is enough?" And Gordon replies, "It's not a question of enough, pal. It's a zero sum game, somebody wins, somebody loses. Money itself isn't lost or made, it's simply transferred from one perception to another."

That's exactly what Enron did under Lay and Skilling. Except they did it on the backs of tens of thousands of hard-working Americans who lost pretty much everything. I can only hope the American justice system does right by all those workers.
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how things work
jamesdamnbrown3 June 2005
Warning: Spoilers
If you want to know how this country works, go see this film. Not only did the guys running Enron pull off the single biggest corporate swindle in history, they had most of Wall Street helping them out. Arthur Anderson—the oldest accounting firm in the country, which was destroyed by this scandal—got the ball rolling when it signed off on Enron's mark-to-market accounting scheme, which allowed Enron to declare as income any deal the company made as soon as the ink dried on the agreement, and at whatever value Enron said the deal would be worth in the future, whether or not that amount turned out to have anything to do with reality. Enron began to claim enormous nonexistent profits in a spectacularly successful effort to drive up the price of its own stock, and the company's chief financial officer began setting up external corporations under his own name to do business with Enron and help bury Enron's debt by getting paid in Enron stock. Major banks like Citibank, Merrill Lynch and JP Morgan all invested in these bogus companies even though they knew it was fraudulent, simply because there was tons of money to be made and the SEC was looking the other way, thanks in large part to Ken Lay's best buddy in the Oval Office.

This situation was not dissimilar to the savings and loan debacle of the 80s, when the elder Bush was using the Executive Branch to run interference for all of his buddies, who were trading overvalued real estate and other assets back and forth, paying themselves substantial fees for every transaction and borrowing money for the deals from S&Ls, which they knew taxpayers would have to repay once all of the deals went bankrupt. And the recent United Airlines bankruptcy, which wiped out its employee pension funds, is just the tip of the coming iceberg. For years now, major corporations in the airline, steel and auto industries have been using the mark-to-market dodge to underfund their retirement funds. These corporations have been declaring as income nonexistent profits based on ridiculously inflated projected future returns from investing their pension funds in the stock market. And just like Enron and United, when these companies fail their employees will lose their retirement benefits while the CEOs bail out with armloads of money. And taxpayers will have to pay again when the Pension Benefit Guarantee Corporation, created by Congress in 1974, goes bankrupt from trying to cover all of the failing pension plans and the federal government has to bail it out, possibly to the tune of $100 billion or more.

The free market myth dies hard, but going all the way back to the era when the railroads secured fortune-making land grants from easily purchased Congressional legislators, big money has been made in this country through crony capitalism—by restricting competition, securing franchises and monopolies and no-bid contracts from the federal government, bankrolling politicians who look the other way while the piggy bank is being raided. It's an old story, and Enron: The Smartest Guys In The Room tells it well.
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10/10
If you lived in California during the 2000 blackouts, you MUST SEE THIS!
brendonm15 August 2006
As has been posted by others, this is a very-well made documentary and it held my attention throughout. The DVD extras are also very well done.

I live in Los Angeles and remember the rolling blackouts during 2000. All Californians _must_ see this movie: your blood will boil as this film lays out how Enron raped us for $30 billion dollars, never mind the retirement savings of so many people they squandered.

California's energy "crisis" was a grand manipulation by Enron. It was NOT all Gray Davis's fault: true, he locked the state into long-term wholesale contracts at inflated prices when we was still in office, but he did that to avoid future rate hikes, which to him at the time looked not only possible, but would be astronomical -- so in context, he made the right decision at the time.

This film also serves as a fascinating psychological profile of Jeff Skilling -- this guy is a pathological liar, and deserves to rot in hell for he did (along with Fastow, Lay and all the traders heard in the movie taking joy and glee at fires burning power lines/transformers -- the inmates in the asylum, as it were).

Watch and be amazed and disgusted at the same time.
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10/10
One of, if not, the best documentary I have seen in ages
Baldrick449 August 2006
This is often portrayed as a leftist conspiracy doco against big business. This is far from the truth. ENRON: The Smartest Guys in the Room is about how the so-called checks and balances in the system collapsed because no one wanted to be the person to put his hand up and claim that they thought that something wasn't right. One could call it collective irresponsibility and the documentary makes a point that this calls into question how such men with such bright hopes and ideas could gradually change and drag other reputable establishments with them. The documentary is handled well, with things explained relatively impartially and bare facts given, with people from both outside and inside interviewed to give the POV's on how it all went pear shaped. There is the odd reference to the Bush dynasty but it is a reference that is based in fact and does not rocket off into conjecture, like some of Michael Moore's work ( not that it isn't entertaining, as well ).

ENRON is a frightening tale of how things on one side of the business desk can be very different than on the other. It is not a story of numbers and dollars, but of hubris and nemesis and how ideals can become twisted and distorted in the world of big business.
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8/10
A true Horror movie that warns all profit-mongers to stay in touch with their soul
oneloveall28 May 2006
In this haunting portrait on the overpowering dominance one's unchecked greed can escalate into, the complicated tale of Enron's rise and drastic fall is overwhelmingly fascinating, unusually entertaining, and at the same time illuminating in a way most Americans would not have the time nor inclination to do research about. Yes, surely there are liberties taken with political connections, omissions, statistics and editing to the fault of making this a disputable piece of "documenting" on several fronts, although what the film argues at the heart of the matter really plays no part in the few (and on no level of dramatic manipulation as a michael moore) questionable decisions that bring in partisan politics, only to alienate certain viewers. On the whole, this is a searing indictment not only of the main players in this largest corporate crime of our age, but of the passive environment in which this horrid philosophy was left to thrive, and ultimately right down to us citizens who are too apathetic to notice to care. This is the kind of film that can inspire one to be more socially conscious in a completely new manner, and addresses the millions out there in corporate America who still engage in this soulless form of diluted, self centered enterprise. It is for the sake of their own well being that this film be fully appreciated.
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9/10
Great overview of this horrible fraud
tnrcooper27 April 2006
This film exposes the brazen greed and audacity that undergirded Enron's electric growth and rapid collapse. The filmmakers retain an objective, fact-based method of presenting the material, abstaining from gloating over the rapid implosion. Indeed, the failure of Enron is the best form of narrative pay-off in that the trajectory of the company is so meteoric and showed so much potential that the story is positively Shakespearean in the company's reach and it's place now as a cautionary tale against corporate avarice.

Director Alex Gibney sets the story around some of Enron's most prominent public figures-Ken Lay, Jeff Skilling, and Andy Fastow. He strikes a nice balance between background on these men and the corporate decisions which set in place Enron's inevitable decline, such as the peer review that Enron employed in order which ensured a constant turnover at Enron and, while perhaps creating a more efficient corporate machine, also encouraged paranoia and sabotaging of co-workers who might have bearing on future employment at the company. He highlights the financial arrangements established by Fastow (allegedly without Skilling or Lay's knowledge or consent-although this seems hard to believe given Skilling's controlling nature and obsession with making the company leaner and stronger). Gibney also considers Enron's role in the manipulation of the California utilities market during 2000-2001, including chilling discussion between energy traders in which they cackled over the failure of the power grid in California while Enron raked in big numbers over the increased cost of electricity. Gibney includes many clips of traders making light of the limitations of the power grid and how it inconvenienced millions and led ultimately to the recall of Governor Gray Davis.

As mentioned, the bald greed of top Enron executives propels the story forward by itself. It seems impossible that such a pyramid, unstable business plan could sustain itself and so it this turns out to be, although not before many people lose their life savings and nest eggs, while Skilling and Lay cash out their stocks before they had de-valued excessively. Gibney keeps the film as simple as possible, but relies on the insight of several people in a position to know a significant amount about the workings of the company and how it operated. Among those include Bethany McLean, a writer for "Fortune" magazine who wrote a story questioning the continued value of Enron stock and Sherron Watkins, an Enron VP who asked Ken Lay, in a letter just after Jeffrey Skilling's resignation in August 2001, whether there was reason to doubt the value of Enron stock.

The film does not show its hand explicitly about the guilt or innocence of the execs although sometimes the tone does suggest their doubt about the claims of innocence made by Lay and Skilling and how such claims seem eminently self-serving and detached form the particulars of the case. Ultimately, the employees who lost their pensions and savings were the most damaged by what seem to be the rash, greedy decisions of a few men who created immense wealth for themselves with little regard for the ultimate effects on the larger proportion of "regular people" with much smaller amounts of Enron stock.

It is hard not to be enraged by this film and it seems to be a quite even-handed look at one of (if not) the worst cases of corporate fraud in financial history.
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10/10
The Best Film of 2005!
Sylviastel17 January 2006
I saw a few films this year but this documentary about the rise and fall of Enron is far more important than anything out there today including Brokeback Mountain. This film provides insight into an American tragedy. The thoughts and opinions and observations of reporters, businessmen, businesswomen, and everybody involved had me glued to the screen. Enron had all the power, influence, and energy to make a lot of money but the truth was that they flawed by building their bridges too high. THe money was not there and there was a lot of talk but little financial return. The California Energy Crisis was a big sign of what was the beginning of the end. Ken Lay and his men were arrogant, selfish, and corrupted by the power of money. They did not notice that money was going out but not coming in like they had planned. They sold a lot of Brooklyn Bridges to anybody gullible enough to believe them. Yet, they had powerful friends both President George Bush Senior and Junior and Dick Cheney as well. When the coast came clear, Enron's tragic tale of greed and lies became crystal clear to those who worked so hard in the Enron Dream. Thousands of employees lost their pensions by buying into the Enron Dream only to turn up broke and crying poverty. I cry for those employees who believed in their company and the dream of Enron. Sadly, this movie does not do enough to enlighten its audience about the plight of the average Enron employee. We see the top of the heap and those who aided knowingly and unknowingly in it's downfall. I pray for those Enron employees who are working 2 or 3 jobs to make up their loss. God Bless You.
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8/10
Should be required viewing for business majors
fmoramar28 May 2005
This is a film that will clearly polarize viewers. Yes, it's a selective view of what happened at Enron but it is stunning in its depiction of the denial, greed, and self-congratulatory aspects of corporate culture, and shows us how "the smartest guys in the room" are often the greediest guys in the room as well. The key thing about Enron is that no one could say clearly how it made its money. Here's a business that became one of the largest corporations in America, essentially bamboozling people and creating a totally unnecessary service and many phantom sub-services. The men at the top were clearly aware of their wrongdoing, but everyone passes the buck. Can we ever change the "bottom line" mentality of corporations who put fast profits ahead of ethics and basic honesty? I doubt it, but if more business majors saw this film they might have some inkling of the world they're getting into.
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7/10
Your Blood Will Boil
HankToms18 May 2005
Toward the end of Enron's reign, many analysts were questioning what the company actually produced. Despite downward stock trends, Enron always managed to thrive. But how? Top Enron executives would bully and intimidate anyone who dug deeper than the quarterly report. How dare we question them, especially when they were making so much damn money in the process.

You have to see for yourself how deep the corruption goes. They were playing with Monopoly money and, from what we were told, they owned every hotel on Boardwalk. You have to see how they manipulated California's energy crisis a couple of years back to recoup internal losses. Such contempt is incomprehensible. Like I said, your blood will boil.

Many other reviewers have compared this movie to Farenheit 911 or blamed the events on the Bush administration. Neither is accurate. While this movie does illustrate a few flimsy connections between Ken Lay and the Bush family, those connections do not hold weight. As well, this movie is not Farenheit 911. While that movie spewed anything negative despite easy refute, this movie moves chronologically from a glorious beginning to a despicable end. Wherever one stands on the political spectrum, we all have to agree what this company did was wrong.

If you show some patience during this movie, it will get to you. Mark my words.
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10/10
Smart guys do finish last, don't they?
diane-3422 October 2005
Enron is a movie you sit through-not one you enjoy or one that makes you happy or one that makes you feel good about the mere knowledge of your fleeting existence on this floating rock. No Enron makes you feel dirty-makes you feel corrupted by the fact that you must share you space on this rock with morons like the assembled fools collected by Lay to fleece individuals, communities and entire areas of the United States.

After watching this motley bunch of capitalists you can easily see that Ronald Reagan's evil empire was simmering in America and ready to mature into the predatory insanity cooked up by the Enron executives.

Alex Gibney presented the facts and, we the audience, can judge those pieces of information as we must. He did not become polemical-he just told the story as it happened. He is to be congratulated for not using the pulpit of cinema to range wider than he did in this brilliant expose' of the depths to which people will fall in order to accumulate power and wealth.

A wonderful film and one which demands attention.
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9/10
A dark allegory about corporate America
Agent1027 June 2005
For those that wish to make money at any means possible, use Enron:The Smartest Men in the Room as a guide. Corporations in general get a pretty ride in our country, but to fully understand how greedy and senseless one of these mega-corps can get is well defined in this documentary.

While Republicans blast the film for being overly critical at their party, let's face it: Enron was a Republian company founded by Republicans. The simple truth of the film is that the executives within Enron CHOSE to be ingrates, ENRON chose to destroy the lives of their investors and employees, and they also took down Arthur Anderson (who were as much responsible for the debacle) as well.

Sadly, this film presents one of the last vestiges of investigative reporting, something that our entire press (not just the "liberal bias" press and the "right-wing whacko" press") failed to pick up or even think about. We just sat along for the ride, watching the wave of wealth enter and engulf us all. Kenneth Lay, Jeff Skilling and the rest of their cronies will walk away with maybe a 10-year sentence and future assets that will most likely be fueled by book deals and personal interviews. All the while, regular people will languish in their lost pension and retirement funds. And even with all of this happening, the great chain of corporate greed will get stronger and more adept at avoiding the law.
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Eye Opening Look At The Future of America's Large Corporations
flipgirl384 May 2005
The first scene of this documentary opens with a skyline view of Houston Texas, home base of the now diminished big corporation Enron. A setting that seems so peaceful, that is is hard to imagine that what is about to be unfolded is nothing like that skyline. Instead, the audience is handed an all access pass to the corruption and greed of the Enron board members and traders, whose main passion turned into stealing billions of dollars from America's hard working class citizens. The documentary is a harrowing and frightening look at the future of large corporations.

The film quickly transitions to a reenactment of the suicide of CLifford Baxter. From this point on, director Alex Gibney manages to successfully package the rise and fall of the Enron corporation into a fascinating 120 minute look at the keniving CEOs, fraudulent lies and deals that this company made to the stockholders of America. From the onset, I was completely drawn in by the facts and naivety of a nation that had come to believe anything that they saw. The malicious minds of Jeff Skilling and Ken Lay as they made phony profits and projected them to Enron traders, causing their stock to soar to unbelievable heights as their company was drowning in billions of dollars in debt. I only wished the film focused just as much on the dealings of Ken Lay as much as Jeff Skilling, for both had an equal part in the dismantling of Enron.

The people who shocked me the most, however, were the Enron traders of Wall Street. It shocked me to no end the greed that these people had in making absolutely sure Enron was always profiting, even if that meant destroying California's economy by the onset of rolling blackouts. Some of the taped conversations played will leave you stunned at how incompassionate and heartless these people were. The film does not shy away from these facts either, but instead simply presents them for what they are.

This documentary is a must see by anyone and everyone living in the United States. Enron was simply the first corporation to get caught, for there is no way we can ignore the fact that there is something seriously wrong with the integrity of large corporations. I can only hope there will be more to follow in the steps of Enron: The Smartest Guys In The Room.

Highly Recommended
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7/10
Decent doc
curtiswaldo12 March 2005
Warning: Spoilers
I just saw this movie at the Austin South by Southwest Film Festival, and having read the book of the same name on which this movie is based, the filmmakers did a good job of fitting a lot of information into two hours. I thought the most entertaining part of the film was the portraits of the primary Enron villains (Jeff Skilling, Ken Lay, and Andy Fastow). The book illustrated how these people often were made to eat their words, and seeing it on video makes it funny as well as sad.

Having said that, I thought the filmmakers focused too much (about a fourth of the film) on the California energy crisis. Whether this was because the director was from California I don't know, but Enron was far from the only or even the biggest beneficiary of Calafornia's energy difficulties. Enron took advantage of the energy market in CA because that is what the rules let it do (the rules were put in place by the CA legislature and approved by Gray Davis, whom the film inexplicably portrays as some sort of martyr). Also the film's portrayal of Enron's close ties to the Bush family feel more like Michael Moore-style political hackery than genuine investigation (let's find some videotape of Bush saying he liked Enron then show it for five minutes!) Ultimately the movie seems to blame the free market system itself for Enron's collapse instead of the hubris-run-amok that was portrayed so well in the book from which the film was adapted. That being said, watching a bunch of thieving, scheming CEO's who once ruled the world stumble over their own lies can be quite amusing, if not vindicating.
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7/10
Yes, Virginia, this documentary is biased
kammm5 May 2005
While this is a well done and interesting examination of the Enron debacle, it alludes to some of the company's downfall in sweeping statements that better documentaries actually explore. Enron: The Smartest Guys in The Room doesn't take it's point of view from the book: that it was hubris and arrogance that were at fault here, rather the director places the blame squarely on the feet of capitalism and deregulation. The answer isn't more regulation. Where was the SEC while all this deception was occurring??

The theater I went to (in Los Angeles) had some guy with a clip board gathering signatures to pull what little deregulation is left here. The California "deregulation" wasn't deregulation at all, in fact, it was the worst of both worlds. The rules (signed off by both a democrat and a republican: Davis and Wilson) forced the highest bidder of the day to set the price for all energy sales, and yet still provided no accountability for the power plants. That's why when Enron called and said shut down, they said "oh okay." FYI: that doesn't happen in a real marketplace. If a trader called Sony and told them not to release any movies next month, they'd tell them to stuff it. Like most "solutions," the partial deregulation in California was begging for someone to come in and manipulate pricing and supply--but it took a company comprised of individuals who seemed to have absolutely NO moral fiber to not only do it but to squeeze it dry. Gray Davis is portrayed as a victim, he wanted the Feds to sweep in and save him when someone like Arnold would have had a bevy of analysts look at what was happening, and then taken the first plane to Houston.

The other part of the movie that other commentaries here have completely missed is that it *does* suggest the Bush's turned a blind eye to both Enron and California's difficulties for political reasons. Now, by my math, at least eight of those fifteen years of raping and pillaging a Dem was in the White House. But no mention of the fact Enron contributed to Clinton's campaign, and/or there was probably a relationship with that administration also. Does this director really think things would have been different had Gore won in 2000?

The movie is good, definitely worth seeing, but needed more of what "regulators" around Enron failed to do: look at the details. I think by doing that, it would have been more balanced, ultimately truthful and pushed itself into the category of "great."
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