Thursday, April 5, 2007

Now Playing: Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room

Speaking as a native Texan, the Enron disaster caught us by surprise as much as the next person. One minute we're hearing stories about one of the top 10 companies in the world and how many billions it's making daily, and the next we're seeing live news shots of the corporate HQ in Houston as employees are vacating in a mad scramble. Over the next few months, story after story came out about how this multi-billion dollar corporation was nothing more than a house of cards and that CEO Jeffrey Skilling and top honcho Ken Lay had been the ones stacking the deck over the last decade. The resultant disaster was the equivalent of a tsunami hitting Wall Street, not to mention the billions in pension and retirement funds that went up in smoke overnight for thousands of people.

The investigation into where the company started and what ultimately went wrong is where Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room comes into play.

The documentary states very clearly at the start that this is a story about people and this is absolutely true. We see the beginnings of Ken Lay and get some insight into where Jeffrey Skilling first came into play. We also learn how heavily invested in Enron, and specifically Lay, the Bush family was and probably still is. It was at this point where I instinctively felt my eyebrows raising, but in keeping with it you learn plenty about everyone involved with the company. Was the Bush family involved in the collapse? Not at all. Were they complicit in earning money from the company as it essentially scammed everyone in sight? Absolutely.

But then again, the documentary carefully points out, so was literally every one else.

Enron did deals with every single major bank on the planet and if you were in the energy industry then you had to, by necessity, deal with Enron. The amount of tentacles this beast had is staggering to discover, and even more amazing is how everyone invovled suspected something was wrong right from the start. But since everyone was making record profits (their Houston-based law firm, which is currently going down in flames I might add, was paid $1 million a week at Enron's height) no one cared whether the money was blood money or not. Enron played on everyone's greed so succssfully that the resultant bankruptcy has become a textbook case.

So much so that it's now the opening chapter in corporate bankruptcy class in law schools across the country.

The film interviews everyone it can from Enron insiders, former traders, one of the former PR guys, top executives, and then talks to people outside the company. We meet a line worker who sold his retirement funds off (initially valued at north of $300,000) for around $1,200. We hear tapes of the Enron traders as they gangrape the California power grid time and again. Grey Davis gets his say as well, and I was stunned to feel sympathy for the man by the time the documentary was over. When this was going on, all I knew was that California had rolling blackouts and people were pissed at Davis and that's where the extent of my knowledge ended. I went to E3 back in 2003 and at the time there were protestors outside the Staples Center demanding everyone sign the "Recall Grey Davis" petition but that was the extent of my personal experience with the craziness engulfing the state at the time.

The documentary explains why Enron was doing this, who was doing it, and why Ken Lay had not a care in the world to stop it.

Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room is indeed a story about people, and these are people you will come to despise. The brilliant move by the film makers is how they boil down the complexities of corporatocracy into easy to understand sound bites that don't pander to the viewer. My Fair Lady was a financial analyst for several years and a stock trader before that and she was flabbergasted that Enron managed to get away with the shenanigans they did. She understands all this stuff naturally while it normally sails over my head. But this film very carefully explains the details of what happened and why, so the viewer never feels left out in the cold.

The great tragedy of Enron though is how many people were left out in the cold on account of the insatiable greed of a few. This is a solid film with a skillfully told narrative that anyone involved in business of any kind simply must see. For the rest of us, this is a lesson in what can happen when Big Business runs amok without proper checks and balances in place. But when you consider how WorldCom and Arthur Anderson folded shortly after Enron did, it makes one wonder whether we'll be able to prevent this from happening again.

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