No suggestions this week, so I decided to let Netflix do the hard work for me by picking the first movie in the documentary section that I hadn’t seen yet. Let me tell you, when I was waiting for it to load up you could have cut the tension with a spork.
Five words about Enron? Assholes.
In 1985, Ken Lay founded a company called Enron. Over the next 16 years he became a very rich man and a close friend of both President Bushes (or should that be Presidents Bush? Like it matters). Unfortunately, Kenny Boy and his two top guys at the company, CFO Andy Fastow and CEO Jeff Skilling, were not quite the exceptional businessmen they appeared to be. They were crooks, and this is the story of how they almost got away with it.
Most of you now will know Enron as “that company that went broke when the bosses were caught stealing”. That’s basically all I knew about it anyway. It was 2001 when the whole thing went tits up for Lay, Skilling and Fastow (and all the others). I had more important to do with my time back then than follow the news; things like drinking, for example. But I digress. The point is, only people who are involved in that world or who go out of their way to know about it will be aware of all that was going on. I don’t know much about the energy business or high finance, but I do know about con artists. I love movies about con tricks and scams, but this is the first one I’ve seen that was completely true.
According to the timeline presented in the movie, things started to unravel for Enron after the publication of an article in Fortune magazine back in March 2001 by Bethany McLean entitled “Is Enron Overpriced?” which compared the astonishingly consistent share price with the opacity of Enron’s businesses and financial records. You can read that article here if you want to. It’s actually quite understandable even for a dribbling idiot like me, and pretty funny when viewed through the retrospect-o-scope. McLean eventually parlayed this article and follow-ups written during the collapse and its aftermath into a book co-authored with her colleague Peter Elkind called, oddly enough, The Smartest Guys In The Room. This film is an adaptation of that book, and McLean and Elkind are both featured as interviewees as well as receiving a “written by” credit along with the director Alex Gibney.
What Gibney has done is to take the story given by the book and present it in a series of interviews with former Enron executives, journalists and even former California governor Gray Davis, who was the Head Cheese at the time Enron traders deliberately created California’s energy shortage in 2000 in order to drive up prices. These interviews are interspersed with archive news reports and footage of Lay, Skilling and Fastow at Congressional hearings, as well as some really snazzy corporate videos. Most of the comedy comes from watching the Big Three dig themselves deeper into the shit in the hearings while we get the alternative version in the talking head segments. Make no mistake about it: this film is really funny. Of course the fallout of the company’s collapse is deadly serious (literally, in the case of the suicide of Clifford Baxter) but the chutzpah displayed at the top is so astonishing that you can’t help but laugh. Plus, a little schadenfreude is good for the soul. Since the film was made, Jeff Skilling was found guilty, sentenced to 24 years in prison and fined $45 million. Ken Lay was also convicted but he appears to have died in between the verdict and his sentencing hearing. Wait, did you hear that? I could swear someone just whispered conspiracy…
Don’t be put off by what you think this is going to be about. This isn’t a film about politics, or economics, or big business. This is a film about a bunch of thieves and liars, and asshole thieves and liars at that. And it’s a blast. It’s just a shame it lost out on the Best Documentary Oscar in 2006 to that darn penguin movie.