Film: Enron The Smartest Guys In The Room

Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room is a 2005 Oscar-nominated documentary by Alex Gibney which charts the rise, peak, and fall of the energy corporation Enron; it is based on the 2003 book of the same name by Fortune reporters Bethany MacLean and Peter Elkind.

The film simplifies some of the convoluted financial details of the White Collar Crime at Enron, comes out with some surprisingly sympathetic (though not excusing) appraisals of the criminals; and explores the little-acknowledged role that Wall Street firms played in perpetuating — and in some cases participating in — the company's fraud.

The smartest tropes in the room:

  • Affably Evil: A lot of clips are seen of videotaped sketches in which Skilling and other Enron executives engage in goofy behavior and self-deprecating humor.
  • Alas, Poor Villain: The film shows how much brightness and potential each of the "captains" of Enron had, and shows how their greedy impulses ultimately led them to squander all that brightness and potential and ruins the lives of everyone around them. On a certain level, Lay and Skilling and the others are victims of their own shortcomings along with their former employees and investors.
  • Armor-Piercing Question: Bethany MacLean's article: "Is Enron Overpriced?"
  • Berserk Button: Do not remind Skilling that Enron does not provide a balance sheet or cash flow statement. He will not react well.
  • Big Bad: Ken Lay.
  • Blatant Lies: On the part of Lay when he insists the company is in good financial condition.
  • California: Remember that "energy crisis" in 2000 where California was supposedly facing an electricity shortage? Turns out that Enron was manipulating California's deregulated energy market and making huge speculative profits by keeping much-needed power out of the state.
  • Corporate Samurai: Pai was this to Skilling and Enron, and not because of his Asian ethnicity.
  • Corrupt Corporate Executive: Everyone.
  • Diabolical Mastermind: All of the major Enron figures, in his own way, could be considered one. In the commentary, Gibney said that the use of the Tom Waits song "What's He Building In There?" from Mule Variations at the start of the film could alternately apply to Ken Lay, Jeffrey Skilling, or Andy Fastow.
  • Downer Ending: Made obvious from the outset.
    • To add insult to injury, on-screen text at the close of the film tells us how regular Enron employees lost thousands in savings while the people responsible for their predicament walked away with millions in bonuses.
  • The Dragon: Jeffrey Skilling.
  • Driven to Suicide: The film starts with a re-enactment of the death of Cliff Baxter.
  • Evil Genius: Andrew Fastow, what with his labyrinthine "partnerships."
  • Evil Inc.: Enron is portrayed as a criminal enterprise since its inception in The Eighties.
  • Evil Tower of Ominousness: Enron's former highrise in Houston is certainly shot as if it were one.
  • For the Evulz: The film contains disturbing audiotapes of Enron personnel who mock and laugh at the long-suffering people of California while they purposefully mess with the state's power grid to jack up electricity prices. The film actually spends a good deal exploring how the corrupt corporate culture at Enron warped the morality of its employees (especially the traders), citing the infamous Milgram experiment.
  • History Marches On: The documentary was released in 2005, the year before Ken Lay and Jeffrey Skilling were scheduled to be put on trial for their role in the Enron collapse. Skilling was convicted and sentenced to 24 years in prison (though the Justice Department shaved ten years off his sentence as part of a deal in 2013). Lay died of a heart attack in 2006 before he could be brought to trial, ultimately making him a Karma Houdini.
  • Idea Bulb: A stock image of one if shown before we see Skilling's face.
  • Ironic Episode Title: The self-styled "smartest guys in the room" brought down a multi-billion dollar company; claimed to run an energy company, yet delivered record numbers of rolling blackouts; destroyed one of the world's most respected accounting firms as collateral damage (to be fair, Arthur Andersen had it coming to them), and the two former CEOs ultimately responsible for it all got sentenced to decades in prison between them. Played straight, then.
  • Karma Houdini: Lou Pai, who was one of the most ruthless Enron honchos and took out more money than the other executives yet was never criminally charged and became the second largest landowner in Colorado.
    • The major Wall Street firms — including Citibank, Merrill Lynch, JPMorgan Chase, and Credit Suisse, among others — who actively participated in some of Enron's criminal dealings, but were mostly allowed to walk away from any consequences.
  • Mega Corp.: Subverted. Enron liked to give the impression that it was this, trying to caress the financial press into running positive stories; wildly inflating its stock price; and using rotten accounting tricks to hide the fact that the company was mired in debt and not turning a profit.
  • Metaphorically True: "Mark-to-market" accounting. This practice allowed Enron to record new profits right after deals were signed, and to keep those profits on the books even when the deals failed to produce money. So even though Enron's Indian power plant, its broadband deal with Blockbuster, and its venture to "trade weather" made zero money, Enron would still put them down as profits and portray itself as a great investment.
  • Minor Crime Reveals Major Plot: The first time anyone began seriously taking a second look at Enron came when Skilling, who the film hints was approaching a nervous breakdown due to his knowledge of the company's imminent collapse, abruptly called one of his investors an "asshole" after being asked an Armor-Piercing Question during a conference call.
  • Narrator: Peter Coyote
  • Precision F-Strike: "I'm fucking smart."
  • Reassigned to Antarctica: "Enron legend" has it that Lou Pai explained to subordinate executives at a strip club that he would drive to the gas station and pour gasoline on himself so that his wife wouldn't smell the strippers' perfume. One executive jokingly asked if Lou's wife would think that he was "fucking the gas station attendant." Lou retaliated by sending the executive to a remote dead-end post in Canada.
  • Smart People Wear Glasses: Averted en masse. Skilling used to wear glasses, but gave himself LASIK surgery while embarking on a macho image makeover. Soon, everyone else at Enron got LASIK surgery.
  • Smug Snake: When Jeffrey Skilling's instructor at Harvard Business School asked him if he was smart, Skilling replied, "I'm fucking smart."
  • Soundtrack Dissonance: Phantom Planet's "California" and the Rivieras' "California Sun" are played throughout scenes of chaos and misery caused by Enron's shenanigans during the California energy crisis.
  • Standard Evil Empire Hierarchy
    • The Emperor: Ken Lay
    • The Right Hand: Jeffrey Skilling
    • The General: Cliff Baxter
    • The Oddball: Andy Fastow
  • The Starscream: Fastow was just as concerned with enriching himself, if not more so, then advancing Enron's fraud. In the end, his murky and labyrinthine schemes became a major contributing factor to the speed of Enron's collapse.
  • Stock Footage: Gibney is fond of using stock footage in his documentaries, and the ones he uses here are surprisingly fitting for a lot of the situations and issues discussed.
  • Tragic Hero: The film portrays the Enron executives as this, suggesting that they truly were inspired visionaries who were ultimately destroyed by their own greed and hubris.
  • Villain Protagonist: The Enron executives, though the film does not treat them as "protagonists" and makes clear what kind of horrific damage they have inflicted on people.
  • Villain with Good Publicity: Enron embarked on a massive public relations campaign portraying itself as one of the most radical, cutting-edge and prosperous corporations in the country, beguiling investors, stock market analysts and financial journalists alike. By the time it collapsed, Enron had been named "America's Most Innovative Company" by Fortune magazine for six consecutive years.
  • Villainous BSOD: Skilling in the months leading up to his abrupt resignation as CEO.
  • White Collar Crime: One of the most infamous examples pre-Great Recession.