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ENRON: THE SMARTEST GUYS IN THE ROOM (director/writer: Alex Gibney; screenwriter: based on the book “The Smartest Guys in the Room” by Bethany McLean and Peter Elkind; cinematographer: Maryse Alberti; editor: Alison Ellwood; music: Matthew Hauser/Marilyn Manson; cast: Peter Coyote (Narrator); Runtime: 110; MPAA Rating: NR; producers: Alex Gibney/Jason Kliot/Susan Motamed; released by Magnolia Pictures; 2005)
“Probing documentary about the unethical Enron corporation.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

Alex Gibney (writer/producer of “The Trials of Henry Kissinger”) presents a brilliantly probing documentary about the unethical Enron corporation, America’s seventh largest corporation, and its downfall caused by its unprincipled business practices (hiding its loses by calling them profits), greed and arrogance. It’s based on the best-selling book “The Smartest Guys in the Room” by Fortune magazine reporters Bethany McLean and Peter Elkind, who chronicled, without adding fresh info, the complicated schemes Enron’s top executives concocted that went undetected because many of the pillars of Wall Street (such as accountant firm Arthur Andersen, Citicorp bank and brokerage house Merrill Lynch) went along with these illicit schemes after being bought off. It’s likened to a Greek tragedy that shows one crooked executive, Lou Pai, stealing 350 million dollars and living now as a king in Hawaii while an honest lineman in Oregon, who regularly contributed to his pension fund, comes out of the scandal with a goose egg in his 401(k) after serving his company loyally for a lifetime (it was once worth $348,000 and at the time of Enron’s collapse was worth $1,200).

It’s a heartbreaking human interest story about the loss of morality in the corporate world and the questionable relationships that powerful politicians like President Bush have in pushing agendas for their large contributors while literally keeping the public in the dark. Peter Coyote provides the narration showing how Enron became the major player in the natural gas industry and made an unusually large profit while rising overnight after its 1985 incorporation to become a multinational giant — at its peak worth over 50 billion dollars, only to fall quickly in August of 2001 and declare bankruptcy after ten days and have the company go out of business. The film explores this dark side of American capitalism and reveals how the company’s top executives such as the shameless liars Ken Lay, Jeff Skilling and Andrew Fastow, three spineless villains who are about as creepy as I ever saw, and many other upper-level honchos managed to keep millions, while the regular work-force (some twenty thousand) paid for their leaders transgressions with the loss of their jobs and their retirement funds.

The film details in an understandable way how when Skilling came aboard in 1987 the company, always interested in keeping its stock price climbing, created an accounting system based on mark-to-market system. This meant it could hide its losses as profits and no one would be the wiser. This unseemly practice ensured good quarterly returns every time and the stock rising in the market as the accountant firm in place to check this illegality turned a blind eye. There are many other scandals uncovered: a billion dollar loss after a power plant in India is built (with the execs in charge receiving outlandish bonuses despite the failure); causing the California energy crisis, which artificially raised the price of energy and gave them enormous profits; and the setting up of shill offshore companies to pay off market analysts and line the pockets of the insiders.

That Americans were taken for a ride by these crooks at Enron is a given; what Gibney does best is let them hang themselves with their lies. But he stumbles a bit when he goes out of his way to be comically cute and embarrass them further by playing songs such as “That Old Black Magic,” “Love for Sale,” and “Son of a Preacher Man,” when they are being probed. I thought that wasn’t really needed, these creeps already made my blood boil. The only thing I look forward to is their conviction and their money confiscated so it could be returned to the people they hurt the most. It leaves one with lots of unanswered questions about the ethics of big business and the role of government as a watchdog. Though it accomplishes its main purpose, to get your attention about the ongoing dangers from corporate greed.

REVIEWED ON 6/12/2005 GRADE: A –

Dennis Schwartz: “Ozus’ World Movie Reviews”