Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room
dir. Gibney
Opens Fri April 29
Cinema 21

Strippers, gambling, and extreme sports--if these are the perks of being a high-powered CEO, why the hell was I a liberal arts major? Well, maybe it's because manipulating huge sums of money and rallying nations around empty promises requires one critical prerequisite: Evil.

At least, that's what director Alex Gibney wants you to believe in Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room. Based on the book by Peter Elkind and Bethany McLean--the Fortune reporter who first broke the Enron scandal--the documentary takes you into the minds of the company's fallen kings. This is more than just a play-by-play look at the rise, fall, and impact of Enron--the film also asks why people act immorally, and (perhaps more damningly) why others allow it to happen. You'll meet the backstabbing, charismatic Jeff Skilling, whose extreme sport outings with other execs echoed the company's survival-of-the-fittest mentality, the Elmer Fudd-ish Ken Lay, a champion of deregulation, and execs whose M.O. was taking strippers back to the office after work.

Surprisingly, all of this makes for dark comedy rather than a muckraking exposé. In one scene, Gibney pairs images of a power-deprived California--including panicked hospital workers and scrambling law enforcement--with taped phone conversations of energy traders who laugh as they turn the power off. Yeah, it sounds horrible, but it's actually pretty funny, if only because of the traders' astounding callousness. And that's what Enron does: Rather than pushing its political agenda, it simply confronts you with the worst of human nature.

Unlike the heavy-handed commentary of Michael Moore's films, Enron's narration (cynically delivered by actor-turned-activist Peter Coyote) pops up only at major turning points. Coyote doesn't need to say much, because Gibney largely lets the executives speak for themselves, relying on footage from interviews, grandiose speeches to employees, clips from internal instructional videos, and the execs' eventual testimony to Congress. Enron succeeds because it's told largely by the scandal's culprits--the guys who genuinely thought they were the smartest ones in the room.