Friday, September 08, 2006

Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room (2005)

Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room"This film is not about a few bad apples at Enron. It's about all of us"

Writer/Director Alex Gibney is talking (on the Director's Commentary) about his film, Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room, and captures in two simple sentences the real strength of this documentary, which is as much about how easily influenced we all are, as it is about the rise and dramatic fall of one of America's biggest corporations.

Enron is a film about people, and the real human tragedy that can arise from human greed, power and ultimate corruption in the corporate 'dog eat dog' marketplace. From the title you might expect a rather dull film about numbers and immoral accounting practices in the business world, in reality the documentary turns out to be something completely different. Focusing on the three main characters at the centre of the piece, it's an entertaining and gripping tale of human tragedy and ultimate misery. It's a moral story for our times.

Documentaries like The Corporation or the vastly inferior Walmart: The High Cost of Low Price have already documented the real cost of allowing corporations to ride roughshod over employees, stockholders and the very fabric of the planet we all live on. Enron's strength is that, unlike those earlier movies, it avoids getting preachy, and even expresses sympathy for some of the main players. The story it has to tell is fascinating, starting with a lesson about 'mark to market' accountancy practices that effectively let Enron invent its own 'expected income' figures to keep the stock market happy, even when the deals that were signed to bring in that 'expected income' were losing millions upon millions of dollars of money month-in, month-out. As debts grow, more and more outrageous exploits come to light as egos and greed remove all critical or moral faculties about the reality of the situation people are working in. We see millions wasted on a project in India without anybody stopping to think that expected income is based on a completely inaccurate assumption that Indians have lots of disposable income. We see they hype of 'movies on demand' broadband long before the technology is capable of delivering anything like what's required. We see gambling of vast amounts of company funds on the stock markets, based on an assumption that the player will always win. California's electricity supply is deliberately cut off and manipulated to drive up power prices and make even more money for Enron. As one insider puts it, who could have predicted that such machinations and the use of 'friends in powerful places' (that'll be George Bush) would not only result in massive profits at the cost of misery to thousands of Californians, but would also result in 'The Terminator' becoming Governor of California.

What's staggering is that not only did everybody cover up, with the big banks all donating millions in loans despite knowing what was going on, but that the all-too-few people who dared to question the madness they could sense, or point out that the increasingly rich and powerful emporer had no clothes, were ridiculed, bullied into submission or just plain fired for the sin of being honest.

The documentary manages to explain very complex accounting irregularities in very simple, understandable terms and in a way that is gripping throughout, even though we all know ultimately where the story is going to end. Clever editing and the use of archive film footage and popular music give the whole thing a polished feel, and a few laughs too. It's a very good example of how to take what might seem a dry subject and make it entertaining and fun.

The DVD is a nice clean anamorphic transfer, apparently shot on High Definition video, although quality obviously suffers when TV clips and archive VHS footage is shown.

The audio commentary by writer/director Alex Gibney is fast-paced, informative, and adds a lot of interesting detail to the facts behind the case, if being somewhat lacking in humour.

The short 'Making Of' feature, presented in non-anamorphic widescreen, is really more of a mini-documentary in its own right, giving the detail of how the story was discovered, became a book and eventually a film. There are also several deleted scenes, although for the most part these are extensions of existing scenes with the more boring interviews cut out.

The DVD does, unfortunately, suffer from not having been updated since the film was made in 2005, so that there's talk of the upcoming trial of two of the main characters, but no mention of the death of one of them. But that's a small criticism really. This is a film everybody should see, if not one they're likely to want to watch multiple times. A high priority rental, this comes highly recommended, and is due in stores this Monday.

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