Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room (review)

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Funny Money

This is it right here, people: the “ownership society” our so-called leaders think we “deserve,” an unregulated, unpoliced Wild West of corporate hegemony. Fraud, greed, arrogance, powermongering? All part of the game, folks, all part of the game. It’s every man for himself, the way God intended, and God help you if you were so fucking stupid that you let yourself be born with anything less than a platinum spoon in your mouth and powerful connections out the wazoo. Cuz most of us are gonna end up serfs if this stuff continues.
Make no mistake — as the absolutely horrifying documentary Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room makes perfectly plain, the story of the crashing and burning of what was the seventh largest corporation in America isn’t just about one company, or how innocent rank-and-file employees lost their jobs, or even the tragedy of ordinary-Joe investors who saw their pensions disappear into the accounting ether. Those things alone would have made the story bad enough, but the truth is so much worse, so much more insidious, so much more an indication of a cultural, political, and economic sickness endemic in America today.

I didn’t really understand the scope of the whole Enron thing, couldn’t really get my head around all the financial jargon, until I saw Alex Gibney’s film, which is based on the book The Smartest Guys in the Room: The Amazing Rise and Scandalous Fall of Enron, by Bethany McLean and Peter Elkind. I knew “Enron” was about some evil immoral corporate assholes fiddling with numbers — so what’s new? — but didn’t get how huge it was until this funny, ironic, scary film laid it out for me. These guys — Ken Lay, Jeff Skilling, Andy Fastow, vicious, aggressive, smug bastards who think they rule the world, and almost do — didn’t just dip their sticky fingers in the corporate cookie jar. They played with billions of imaginary dollars, and that’s no metaphor. With the full approval of the SEC, Enron utilized an accounting scheme that allowed them to pretend that potential future profits — even if the “potential” for their appearance was next to nil — were in the bank now, which in turn allowed them to game the stock market. And they did that with the full knowledge and approval of stock analysts at major brokerages, because those guys were in on the scam too, making millions of their own. Who cares if the little guy gets screwed? Employees? Small investors? Fuck ’em. Gibney dug up an Enron corporate film in which Skilling, Enron’s COO, spoofs his and the company’s own disdain for reality-based accounting procedures, and it’s absolutely shocking. But hey, why not? I could rule the world too if I winked and said I had $100 billion, and everybody who knew the truth winked along with me because I slipped ’em each a share of the actual dough scraped up from investors who bought my stock based on completely invented numbers.

Oh, and it gets so much more evil. That California “energy crisis” that saw the utility bills of ordinary folk skyrocket at the same time rolling blackouts plagued the state? A complete fabrication by Enron, which had traders on the phone ordering power plants to shut down for no reason except that it would make Enron more millions if there was a “crisis.” The audio tapes of traders laughing over grandmas who can’t pay their electricity bills is absolutely disgusting.

The cultural, political, and economic sickness I mentioned? Its stink is all over this disaster. Why did it take so long before people started blowing the whistle on what Enron was up to, and why did so few whistleblowers come forward? Gibney mentions that sociological experiment from the 1960s that we’re all probably familiar with, the one in which people were told to administer electric shocks to other people by an authority figure, and 50 percent of the subjects would keep administering shocks even beyond the point at which the person getting shocked started complaining about, you know, pain and stuff? The point is that 50 percent of even ordinary not-evil people will do Bad Things as long as someone in authority tells them to do it, but that means 50 percent of people won’t — there should have been a lot more people letting the Enron cat out of the bag. Where were they all? Are fear and submission such dominant qualities in the American psyche today that people will put up with anything rather than rock the boat?

And then there’s this: Enron was the single largest contributor to George W. Bush’s first presidential campaign. Gibney demonstrates that the debacle in California sure as hell looks like it was engineered not just to make a shitload of money but to railroad then-governor Gray Davis, a potential opponent for Bush in 2004. Coincidence? (Oh, and Enron was in bed with now-governor Arnold Schwarzenegger. Coincidence?)

And then there’s this: The big banks of the world — Citibank, Chase, Merrill Lynch, and so on, the ones all us ordinary Joes bank with — were in on Enron’s schemes, too, playing fast and loose with our money, gambling with our money in order to make a lot for themselves. This Enron crap, the whole wide web of corruption around it, was about screwing all of us regular Americans — we’re lucky Enron didn’t bring down the whole of the American banking system/house of cards with it. Anyone who is struggling to pay the rent or the mortgage, who is seeing their salary stagnate while health-care costs skyrocket, who just can’t seem to do anything other than tread water financially, should be furious. There are ways to game the system, but we’re not privy to them — in fact, those ways are all but guaranteed to screw us over.

Gibney leaves us with a sense that the whole thing is like organized crime. No, wait: these Enron guys were even worse than the mafia. The mob at least provides a service for what you pay them, even if that service is protecting you from getting beaten up by the mob. These guys? They extorted millions and still fucked us up something awful. Rome was burning, and these guys not only lit the match, they threw fuel on the fire and sat around roasting marshmallows and laughing while the city burned.

Man, you can’t even call it political conspiracy, because “conspiracy” connotes secrecy and these guys and all their pals in government and high finance worked right out in the open and hardly anyone called them on their bullshit; someone here in the film uses the term “synergistic corruption,” which is better, but much of what they pulled doesn’t even seem to have been illegal. Sure, Ken Lay might, might end up spending a few months in a country-club prison — if he even gets as much punishment as that — but no one’s retirement money is gonna reappear. He still walks away with millions of dollars of other people’s money.

This shit ain’t right. We should all be taking to the streets or something, burning Alan Greenspan in effigy, cutting up our credit cards, some damn thing.

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