Knowledge Is Power But Math is Still Boring

Reviewed by Lauren Saccone


Enron: The Smartest Guys In The Room

Directed by Alex Gibney

Magnolia Pictures, 2004



This past year, documentaries finally became major players at the box office.  Fueled by such high-profile, controversial films as Fahrenheit 9/11 and Super Size Me, the ainstream ultimately learned to love documentaries.  No longer doomed to limited release in art house theaters, the general public got a taste of an underappreciated form of filmmaking.


However, there is a downside to this.  Now, it seems, any documentary made about a timely issue is heralded as brilliant, with critics tripping over each other to proclaim it the next big thing.  In the case of Enron: The Smartest Guys In The Room, on one hand you have a very well made film; on the other, you have just another documentary.


The Enron story can be taken two ways, but only one of them is good.  You have a riveting tale of corruption and the abuse of power, of people willing to do anything to make money, cheerfully crushing innocent people on their way to the top.  The problem is, the Enron scandal was all about numbers.


Now, I know virtually nothing about math.  I am the sort of person calculators were created for, and get easily bored with equations.  So while I appreciated the filmmaker's earnest attempts to make the mathematical sections of the film comprehensible, I can't say they were entirely successful.  The ultimate test is this: if asked, I still cannot say with complete certainty what the Enron people did.  The film devotes long sections explaining offshore accounts, business names with no businesses, and traders so cold-hearted as to shock the average person, but these sections of the film are harder to digest.   They lack the soul and humanity of other chapters (the film is divided by chapter, the ones focusing on actual people being far more interesting) and veer dangerously close to losing the attention of the audience.


That being said, some chapters were spellbinding.  The birth and evolution of Enron is intriguing, and discussions of the president of Enron, Ken Lay, dirt-biking and acting like a reject from the X-Games are hysterical, if a little unnerving.  Nobody wants their geeky boss to be doing twenty-foot jumps on a dirt bike.  Also, the mysterious tale of Lou Pai, one of the main perpetrators of the Enron scandal, and his addiction to strippers is intriguing and funny in the sick sense of a former nerd buying women, but the stock footage of writhing pole-dancers is somewhat over the top.


The film is strongest when it stops trying so hard.  A forced section, where the camera focuses on the reflection of the speaker rather than the person themselves, can be numbing.  But listening to actual tapes of traders encouraging the fires in California to "burn baby burn," or asking power plants to turn off for a few hours to raise prices, inspires such rage and horror as to make up for the weaker parts.  Learning about President Bush's affiliation with Enron only confirms your suspicions about our leader, and also implicates Bush Senior.  Similarly, hearing Lay call an interviewer asking a simple question an "asshole" is chilling; these people have too much money and power to behave in this way.  What's worse is how long they got away with it, with the blessings of our government.


Another strong point of the film is the soundtrack.  It's absolutely fantastic, and can rein in your attention when the appeal of the film wanes.  At times it's all too appropriate, but the selection is so good you can forgive the obvious.  When discussing the California blackouts (the strongest part of the entire film), "Californication" by the Red Hot Chili Peppers plays.  As we learn about the president of Enron, whose father was a preacher, "Son of a Preacher Man" dutifully blasts. There are new songs and old classics; "God Bless The Child," a wonderful track by Billie Holliday, as well as Marilyn Manson's fantastic cover of "Sweet Dreams (Are Made of These)."  Judy Garland, Tom Waits, Traffic, and Oingo Boingo all make appearances.  And they all work perfectly, lending a deftly ironic, often sad touch to the film that strengthens it immeasurably.


I would really like to give this movie a rave review.  I suppose I'm one of those people who is so happy documentaries are getting released with more regularity that I'm willing to overlook certain aspects of the movie.  But the question about documentaries in general, and Enron in particular, is "What did I learn?"  That big business is evil, and will screw the little guys out of their hard-earned money?  That the government needs to pay better attention to corporations and rein in those abusing their power?  That the stock market is dangerous to play when you don't know much about it?  That President Bush is just a bit corrupt?  There's nothing here that is especially revolutionary, only sad and infuriating.  You feel terrible for the people who lost everything.  You want to punch out those soulless traders who thought only of their commission.  You really wish evil upon Lay, Pai, Jeffrey Skilling, and Andrew Fastow, plus all the other people who were so blinded by greed and power that they lost any humanity they might have formerly claimed.


Personally, my judgment on the quality of a movie is how I feel afterwards.  I didn't feel much after Enron, besides being thankful that I put my own funds in the bank, rather than the stock market, and a definite hostility towards traders and businessman.  It is interesting how the director of Enron, Alex Gibney, stays behind the camera throughout the entire film.  He lets the whistle-blowers, former traders, and even the Simpsons speak for him.  But at the same time, this film lacks that fire that other recent documentaries like Born Into Brothels} have claimed.  In the end, Enron: The Smartest Guys In The Room is as smart as it claims to be.  It just isn't quite as interesting.  You may not admit it, but after watching this film, you might find yourself longing for the days when Michael Moore, in all his biased, brilliant glory, dominated every frame of the camera.