Where Enron Went Wrong

"Enron" focuses on former financial officer Andrew S. Fastow, among other executives. (By David J. Phillip)
By Michael O'Sullivan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, April 29, 2005

"MARIA," TONY sang in "West Side Story," "say it loud, and there's music playing. Say it soft, and it's almost like praying."

After watching "Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room," filmmaker Alex Gibney's by turns harrowing and darkly hilarious documentary about one of the largest corporate bankruptcies in history, I can't say (or write, for that matter) the names "Lay," "Skilling" and "Fastow" without wanting to, well, vomit. Yes, just reviewing my notes about the alleged misdeeds of the film's three villains -- former Enron chief executive officer Kenneth L. Lay, former president, chief executive officer and chief operating officer Jeffrey K. Skilling and former chief financial officer Andrew S. Fastow, who presided over, and profited from, the company as it sank into more than $66 billion of debt -- is making me physically ill.

Now that's powerful filmmaking. The raw material, of course, is pretty darn nauseating.

Gibney's blow-by-blow film, based on the book, "The Smartest Guys in the Room: The Amazing Rise and Scandalous Fall of Enron," by Fortune reporters Bethany McLean and Peter Elkind, doesn't even include the best part of the story either: The phony trading floor set up and maintained in the energy trading company's Houston office as a way of fooling business analysts into rating the company's stock higher. (For this observation, I tip my hat to Nell Minow of the research group the Corporate Library, who in her dual capacity as professional movie critic and corporate governance watchdog, could not have been a more useful screening companion.) Truth be told, though, the movie doesn't need this sordid episode. There's enough double-dealing and chicanery even without it -- e.g., the audio tapes of energy traders cynically manipulating power outages in California during its energy crisis just to make the company more money -- to compensate for the omission.

Sure, "Enron" gets a little wonky at times. More like "The Corporation" (another excellent recent documentary about the dangers of unchecked greed and amorality in the business world) than, say "Fahrenheit 9/11," which got by as much on facts as on the sheer force of Michael Moore's personality, Gibney's film must succeed by making at least partly understandable such business arcana as the practice known as "mark to market" accounting. Hint: Just think "subjective" (i.e., nonexistent) profits, based on, as Skilling jokes at one point, "hypothetical future value." In other words, counting money that doesn't actually exist and hiding losses that do. Fastow, as the film points out, was a genius at this, personally profiting from the creation of entirely legal "special purpose entities" set up expressly to hide Enron's massive accumulation of debt. Where "Enron" succeeds, though, is not merely by making complicated financial transactions accessible to the layman. The story is, as the film points out, a human tragedy, after all, as much as it is a tale of monstrous business failure. It's the story of all those investors and employees who lost money and jobs while top executives made millions. It's the story of shame (leading, in the case of Enron executive Cliff Baxter, to suicide) and of utter shamelessness. It's a story of jaw-dropping chutzpah, grim, mostly hindsight-based humor and more stomach-churning drama than you could find in 10 screenplays.

ENRON: THE SMARTEST GUYS IN THE ROOM (Unrated, 120 minutes) -- Contains obscenity, a non-graphic reenactment of a suicide and strip club footage. At Landmark's E Street Cinema and Bethesda Row and the Cinema Arts Theatre.

© 2005 The Washington Post Company