Enron is a well-worn story of many things: accounting irregularities, energy
deregulation, New Economy hysteria, and other matters that contributed to one of
the largest bankruptcies in U.S. history. The saga has been picked over like a
carcass by journalists, government watchdogs and plaintiffs. It has been the
subject of books, business school case studies, government investigations and a
All of that gave Alex Gibney pause. What could he -- a filmmaker with limited
background in business or finance -- possibly add to the cultural record of
His pause lasted a few seconds.
"Economics is a story about human survival," Gibney said during a recent
visit to Washington to promote his new documentary, "Enron: The Smartest Guys in
the Room," opening here today. "It's always about the people. Enron is no
Gibney, who wrote and produced the critically acclaimed "Trials of Henry
Kissinger" in 2002, is at heart a student of anthropology, particularly as it
relates to power and influence. The disgraced energy firm offered him a large
"Yes, there had been a lot about Enron in the press," says Gibney, 50, who is
soft-spoken and intense behind dark glasses. "But I felt that, like me, no one
really knew what . . . had gone on there."
He means the human stories in what he calls "the ultimate morality tale"
behind the gleaming veneer of the onetime gas pipeline company that, before its
collapse, would swell -- along with its stock price -- into the country's
In one of the film's most striking scenes, Gibney juxtaposes images of car
crashes caused by malfunctioning traffic lights in California (during rolling
blackouts that were orchestrated, in part, by Enron traders who were exporting
power out of the state) with audiotapes of the traders telling jokes and footage
of the famous experiment conducted by psychologist Stanley Milgram in which he
told his subjects to administer electric shocks of increasing intensity to
"learners." In some cases, Milgram's subjects were even willing to administer
supposedly lethal shocks of electricity.
"I wanted to give a sense that as a Milgram subject hits the button, he's
making cars crash in California," Gibney says. "Given the right circumstance,
people can do horrible things."
"The Smartest Guys in the Room" is based on the best-selling book of the same
name by Fortune magazine writers Bethany McLean and Peter Elkind, both of whom
appear in the documentary. While the book is an exhaustive, 440-page account of
Enron's rise and collapse, complete with descriptions of Enron financial and
accounting machinations, the film is essentially a series of cinematic
"The documentary cannot be called muckraking, as the muck has already been
well-raked," says film critic David Edelstein, writing on Slate.com. "But
Gibney's recounting has a touch of playful sadism that I quite enjoyed."
"Over a period of time, it's easy to forget the magnitude of Enron," says
Rep. Henry Waxman (D-Calif.), a vocal critic of the company, who attended a
screening of the documentary in Washington last week. "The film was masterful in
focusing on the individuals involved, rather than the sheer volume and
complexity of the scandal."
But this doesn't mean Gibney's reporting came easily. The Department of
Justice was not helpful in providing documents or tapes, Gibney says. And what
remains of Enron -- basically handfuls of people working to settle the company's
debts and baby-sit its lawsuits -- offered no help. "Even now, Enron is still
playing the game," he says.
Mimi Swartz, the author of another book on Enron, says that a lot of the
preceding efforts to portray the story on-screen -- particularly a CBS movie
that Gibney calls "terrible" -- made people skeptical that it could be done
well. But Gibney won over many sources with his quick mastery of the story,
Swartz says. "Plus, his reputation preceded him."
Gibney won an Emmy in 1992 for "Pacific Century," a PBS documentary about the
Asian economy. That constituted his one foray into economic reporting. "But I
have always had the bug to understand more about the political economy," he
says. Enron struck him as the ultimate study in how politics and the economy
intersect. "It is a high-octane story," Gibney says. In places, "you can
ultimately feel the adrenaline the perps were experiencing." At the same time,
Gibney says, "I wanted to make this movie approachable to anybody who cares
about their money."
Like McLean and Elkind's book, the film begins with the suicide of Enron
executive Cliff Baxter in 2002, shortly after the company's collapse. In the
film, McLean describes Baxter as manic-depressive, a characterization that
Baxter's widow, Carol, contested after a screening for former Enron employees in
Houston last week. "He was never diagnosed with that illness," Baxter told
McLean and Gibney, according to the Associated Press. "Smartest Guys in the
Room" includes a dramatization of Baxter shooting himself in his wife's car. He
left a note on the dashboard that read, in part, "Where once there was great
pride, now it's gone."
It is apt that "Smartest Guys in the Room" focuses chiefly on the smartest of
Enron smarties, the trio of board chairman Ken Lay, chief executive Jeffrey
Skilling and chief financial officer Andrew Fastow. They are rendered --
particularly Lay and Skilling -- as rabid avatars of deregulation, crusading
before Congress and elsewhere for the need to free business from any manner of
Gibney makes liberal use of rarely seen company promotional footage and
audiotapes to evoke the giddiness that pervaded Enron -- as it did so many "New
Economy" firms -- during the late-'90s stock boom. The executives are heard
hyping Enron's stock (even while they themselves were divesting), asserting the
moral rectitude of their work (Enron is "on the side of the angels," Skilling
says) and then, when things start falling apart, covering their backsides. ("I
don't care what you say about the company," Fastow told McLean, who was working
on a story about Enron for Fortune. "Just don't make me look bad.")
As he speaks of Enron's maestros, Gibney -- who spent 10 months on the
project -- exhibits a contempt bred by familiarity, at least secondhand.
(Despite many approaches, Lay, Skilling and Fastow declined to be interviewed
for the film.)
"Fastow I just found to be a very weak man," says Gibney. "He is venal and
selfish, but mostly just weak." Skilling, he says, "sensed that venality and
weakness in Fastow," which he leveraged to his advantage. Lay is "simply
unreflective," Gibney says. "He is unwilling and incapable of seeing just how
motivated by avarice he is. He has to believe he's above all this, even though
he allows it to happen."
Lay and Skilling have been indicted on felony fraud charges and will stand
trial next year. Fastow pleaded guilty to conspiracy charges and could serve a
maximum of 10 years in prison.
Gibney compares Enron's top executives to science fiction filmmakers. Bold,
creative, willing to make things up and expert in getting people -- on Wall
Street, in their auditor's office -- to suspend disbelief. "They were skilled at
making the Enron story seem so convincing that everyone wanted to believe
"That's just human nature at work here."