The Smartest Guys in the Room: A Film About the Downfall of Enron

Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room (2005)

Directed and written by
  • Alex Gibney
Based on the book by
  • Bethany McLean
  • Peter Elkind
Narrated by
  • Peter Coyote
Documentary, Indie
Rated NR

110 minutes


This is not a political documentary. It is a crime story. No matter what your politics, "Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room" will make you mad. It tells the story of how Enron rose to become the seventh largest corporation in America with what was essentially a Ponzi scheme, and in its last days looted the retirement funds of its employees to buy a little more time.

There is a general impression that Enron was a good corporation that went bad. The movie argues that it was a con game almost from the start....

The documentary is based on the best-selling book of the same title, co-written by Fortune magazine's Bethany McLean and Peter Elkind. It is assembled out of a wealth of documentary and video footage, narrated by Peter Coyote, from testimony at congressional hearings, and from interviews with such figures as disillusioned Enron exec Mike Muckleroy and whistle-blower Sherron Watkins. It is best when it sticks to fact, shakier when it goes for visual effects and heavy irony....

The most shocking material in the film involves the fact that Enron cynically and knowingly created the phony California energy crisis. There was never a shortage of power in California. Using tape recordings of Enron traders on the phone with California power plants, the film chillingly overhears them asking plant managers to "get a little creative" in shutting down plants for "repairs." Between 30 percent and 50 percent of California's energy industry was shut down by Enron a great deal of the time, and up to 76 percent at one point, as the company drove the price of electricity higher by nine times. We hear Enron traders laughing about "Grandma Millie," a hypothetical victim of the rolling blackouts, and boasting about the millions they made for Enron....

Strange, that there has not been more anger over the Enron scandals....Early in the film, there's a striking image. We see a vast empty room, with rows of what look like abandoned lunchroom tables. Then we see the room when it was Enron's main trading floor, with countless computer monitors on the tables and hundreds of traders on the phones. Two vast staircases sweep up from either side of the trading floor to the aeries of Lay and Skilling, whose palatial offices overlook the traders. They look like the Stairway to Heaven in that old David Niven movie, but at the end they only led down, down, down.

Rotten Tomatoes

Tomatometer 97%

Average Rating: 8.1/10
Reviews Counted: 117
Fresh: 114
Rotten: 3

Audience Score 86% liked it

Average Rating: 3.6/5
User Ratings: 31,372

A. O. Scott, New York Times

If you are looking for a good dose of outrage at a theater near you, you won't find a better bargain than "Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room," a new documentary directed by Alex Gibney... 

Anyone who might be in the jury pool for the coming trials of Kenneth L. Lay and Jeffrey K. Skilling, the top Enron executives who have yet to face justice, should probably stay away, since the movie makes the case against them with prosecutorial vigor. Based on the best-selling book by the Fortune magazine reporters Bethany McLean and Peter Elkind, "Enron" is a tight, fascinating chronicle of arrogance and greed. Interweaving Peter Coyote's sober, ever-so-slightly sarcastic voice-over narration with interviews and video clips (as well as one ill-advised and unnecessary re-enactment) and accompanied by an anthology of well-chosen pop songs, it manages to be both informative and entertaining.

Much of the entertainment value comes from the undeniable pleasure of feeling morally superior to many of the people on screen, a nice antidote to the envy they might have inspired when they were riding high. Mr. Gibney uses video from Congressional hearings and financial chat-show appearances to damning effect; in the era before CSPAN and CNBC, the case against Enron might have been much harder to make.

He has also obtained in-house video from company meetings, in which Mr. Skilling and Mr. Lay, in their very different styles, strut and brag through the company's boom years. Mr. Lay is a bit like a classic Texas football coach - gruff, tough but also possessing a measure of courtly charm. Mr. Skilling is more tightly wound, supremely confident of his intellect and abilities, with a chillier demeanor than his boss. When their enterprise starts to collapse, Mr. Skilling, expressing no remorse and accepting no responsibility, abruptly quits. Mr. Lay, rallying his troops, indulges in one of the most dismaying appropriations of the Sept. 11 attacks ever recorded, declaring to employees in the autumn of 2001 that, just like America, Enron is under attack....

While the audience's contempt for Mr. Lay and Mr. Skilling feels good and is duly earned, Mr. Gibney does not encourage undue smugness. Without spelling too much out, "Enron" suggests a widespread moral deficit underlying Enron's eventual bankruptcy. Accountants held no one to account, governments abandoned their regulatory functions, the media turned cheaters into stars and a culture of self-righteous mendacity was allowed to flourish as long as the stock prices were high.

The smart guys at Enron were clever - and amoral - enough to profit from those circumstances. In all likelihood, they regard themselves as scapegoats, even as the public views them as villains. It's not impossible that they are, to some extent, both.

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