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Filmmaker Alex Gibney presents a tale of greed, deception and corruption in this epic documentary on the Enron scandal that destroyed the corporation and put thousands out of work.

Fahrenheit $65 Billion

Travel to the seventh level of corporate hell
Travel to the seventh level of corporate hell

Who would have thought a scandal so tremendous could be reported by the media so trivially? I mean, yeah, when Enron finally crashed and burned, we saw the occasional news report or interview on the subject, but around that time, America had just experienced the September 11th attacks and this controversy was mostly swept under the rug. The horror of finding out how much we didn’t know makes this documentary one of the most memorable cinematic experiences in a long time.

The research for the film is based on the book by journalists Bethany McLean and Peter Elkind entitled The Smartest Guys in the Room: The Amazing Rise and Scandalous Fall of Enron. These two have brilliantly broken down the entire Enron dynasty, from its creation to its demise, from an astounding sixty-five billion dollars in assets to total bankruptcy in 24 days.

Peter Coyote serves wonderfully as narrator; he doesn’t lay on the heavy sarcasm like Michael Moore (Fahrenheit 9/11), or jingle about in tawdry hysterics like Morgan Spurlock (Super Size Me), but gives us just the right spark we need to cope with the mortifying information given in the film. His voice, over a magnificent soundtrack, acts as a great tool that Gibney uses gracefully through out the film.

Dude, Where’s My Stock?

The opening shot in the film shows a church below the former Enron headquarters boasting a large sign that reads “JESUS SAVES”. Nothing could be more appropriate for the ride that we are about to take to the seventh level of corporate hell. We embark on a roller-coaster-like slope uphill with details on the company’s initial success, before quickly plummeting down to the grizzly details of defamation within the walls of Enron.

The key players in this corporate tragedy are CEO Kenneth Lay (“Kenny Boy” to his good buddy George W. Bush), CEO Jeffrey Skilling, CFO Andy Fastow, and a few other fraudulent executives of the company who fell into heavy fire over the scandal. And, personally, I’ve never seen a more impressive cast of villains in my history at the movies. This band of immoral brothers will certainly shock and appall; they elicited many groans and boos from my audience. Bethany McLean appears a large portion of the time, sitting calmly in midst of the hurricane, telling her fascinating story on how she stumbled on the facts.

Besides the informative interviews with ex-executives and workers of Enron, Gibney has laid out a banquet of archive footage that we can feast our eyes upon. There are many speeches given by Kenneth Lay to the hundreds of employees at Enron while the audience knows he is blatantly lying to every one of them. The clips are so cleverly placed, Kenny Boy’s startling dishonesty makes for an even more cringe-inducing scene when he smiles and laughs off all allegations against him.

While these evildoers of free market capitalism got rich off of fake profits, the sleazy politicians weren’t far away. Enron was the single largest contributor to George W. Bush’s first presidential campaign. I don’t want to give away some of the more gruesome facts, but the one that really stirred me was a shocking connection made between the blackouts in California and then-governor Gray Davis, a potential opponent for Bush in 2004. The implication pretty much rubbed out Davis’ reputation.

Smartest Film in the Theater

Going into this film, I wasn’t sure I’d follow every detail because of my lack of experience with corporations, stocks, and business deals. Having viewers like me in mind, Gibney has created a very simple narrative flow that allows all people, including people like me, to understand what went on.

But not all is completely perfect. Early in the film we get a strange reenactment of executive Cliff Baxter’s suicide, which is not only somewhat confusing, but overstates the point. There is also a sequence where an executive who enjoys strippers is discussed, and we get some shots of a strip club with many bare-breasted women for an unnecessary few minutes. Some of the facts that were touched upon could have been looked into much more deeply, like the relationship between Kenneth Lay and George W. Bush. This was only briefly discussed.

But in full scope, Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room is the best film in theaters so far this year. And watching the movie with an audience at the theater was hysterically entertaining, with all the hissing and popcorn throwing going on. This deeply moving documentary makes you gasp, laugh, cry and fume as you watch the (once) seventh largest business in America go down the corporate toilet.