Monday, January 23, 2012

[DVD] Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room (2005)


Based on the book The Smartest Guys in the Room: The Amazing Rise and Scandalous Fall of Enron by Bethany McLean and Peer Elkind, Alex Gibney's documentary charts the stratospheric rise and meteoric fall of Enron, an energy, commodities and services company based in Texas that was the darling of Wall Street in the buildup to Y2K, before tanking itself at the turn of the new millennium through greed and fraud, most notably taking down its auditors Arthur Andersen, one of the largest auditing firms at the time, with it. As a young man at the time looking for a job, Arthur Andersen was one of the companies many in my cohort had aspired to join, and some did, until the now infamous shredding of documents incident brought the giant down to its knees, and a sorry and rude awakening that no company was infallible.

It's as if we never learn from history, with the latest Wall Street woes still boiling essentially down to white collar crooks being creative with the books, and innovative in their design of instruments set to confuse, yet hyping themselves up to be money making tools that can never fail. These signposts - guaranteed returns, guaranteed protection of principle, and all round too good to be true feeling, are ingredients to failure that we would all likely not consider, preferring to look at the brighter side of things and turn a blind eye to, and in this fashion be susceptible to manipulation and lies. Films like Margin Call and Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps are fine films that fictionalizes the basic greedy human condition, until the time when shit hits the fan that everything comes crumbling down.

Alex Gibney's documentary takes a more academic approach in showcasing the important points that stem from deregulation of the energy market, and the charismatic approach that its founders went to sell the promises of the company, and essentially making money from nothing - but options and promises of something of a future value to come. The obsession with numbers, showing how profitable the company was quarter after quarter, which is as amazing as it is nearly impossible without concrete, substantial, tangible goods and services, highlights how obsession toward money and pure capitalism combined with the succumbing to want to win at all costs, lead to temptation for committing fraud. To repeat lies continuously and with conviction makes it look as if it's the truth, pulling wool over many people's eyes, with everyone wanting to jump on the money making bandwagon, and treating naysayers as idiots who just don't get it. And with billions to be made at so short a time, who wouldn't want to get on it?

The film concentrates on the three top honchos of Kenneth Lay, Jeffrey Skilling and Andrew Fastow as key players who are undoubtedly smart, but applying their smarts in the wrong fashion of wanting to create the corporation of the world where everything else was beneath them, and collectively building that tower of untouchability and incredible profits as they pied piper everyone on Wall Street about their potential. Better yet, their ability to make money out of everything, such as bandwidth, electricity and the likes. The film introduces their work ethics or the lack thereof, and while on hindsight it's easy to see where the obvious danger signs are, I'm pretty certain one will find it easier to be suckered into what they were selling, if they had any tangibles to sell it to begin with, other than a soaring stock price and an entire flimsy system built on mark to market accounting.

Skeptics are put down ruthlessly, and the largest irony here is Enron's slogan being "Ask Why?", but nobody dared to do so when scrutinizing their books or questioning how Enron managed to be the new economic miracle it seemingly was, getting caught up in the euphoria of money, money and more money. Lessons learnt came from the incorrect corporate culture where celebration was at hand when profits come from the less fortunate - there is no zero sum game - and what may be applicable here even, that having private companies run public infrastructure and utilities, and the power to determine prices and service quality, is essentially asking for trouble, with California's power outage problems, despite having more than enough capacity, brought down no thanks to unscrupulous wheelings and dealings from within Enron to both cause the problem with restricting supplies, skyrocketing demand and price, and profiteering from it in the markets. There's nothing illegal here given the workings within the confines of a deregulated framework, but highly unethical given the ability to profit in such a fashion - listening to the tapes of the transactions, will boil your blood.

The film summarizes the countless, countless of scandalous dealings and even containing inside footage where you can see the perpetuation of blatant lies and profiteering from insider training of sorts, and manipulation of a big bully against its detractors and obscenely rewarding the top echelons with hundreds of millions. You have to tip your hat at the gall of the unholy trinity of Lay-Skilling-Fastow as they seduce everyone with their promises built on empty lies, where regulators, banks and what you would deem as the checks and balances inherent in the financial system would be bypassed so easily and failed when they should have mattered, highlighting how fallible everything is when having money stare straight at one's face, ripe for the taking without accountability.

It's a horror story that's effectively told in succinct terms summarizing the spectrum of fraud, though one that has to be learnt from and to have one's eyes propped open to the tactics of conmen and schemes that continuously evolve with time. What was lacking was the first hand talking heads interview with the unholy trinity, instead we get interviews with a lot of other, related characters who are involved either as employees or external parties, enough to build the persona of the chief culprits involved. For now this story becomes a classical business and fraud case study, but if true, smartest guys anywhere were to put their heads together to think up of a scheme to fleece everyone, no thanks to our inherent greed system, we won't be seeing the last of an Enron equivalent anytime soon. If you want to know more about Enron, this is the documentary that you should go to first. Highly recommended!

The Region 1 DVD by Magnolia Home Entertainment autoplays with Trailers (4:56) in the letterbox format for The World's Fastest Indian, One Last Thing..., and an HDNet advertisement. The film is presented in an anamorphic widescreen format, with audio available in its original English 5.1 Dolby Digital Surround. Subtitles are available in English close caption and Spanish, with Scene Selection available over 15 chapters.

There are tons of Bonus Material included in the release of this DVD presented in the letterbox format. There's the Feature Commentary with Writer/Director Alex Gibney that is chock full of information both about the making of the film, and to give it additional content and insights as he covers a lot more stuff that couldn't be covered in the film proper, otherwise this will turn into a mini-series instead. Extremely informative as Gibney covers the spectrum on both the content and filmmaking angles.

Deleted Scenes (19:30) comes with a Play All option, for The Silverpeak Incident dealing with more details about the California power crisis, Car Salesman talks to one who details how the Enron traders would drop by to pick up their luxury cars, Ken Lay's Indictment provides a behind the scenes look at the media circus outside the Houston Federal Courthouse, as well as Ken Lay's address, and Gray Davis and the California Crisis dwells a little bit more about the Californian governor's tussle with Enron.

We Should All Ask Why?: Making The Enron Film (13:55) has director Alex Gibney talk us through his filmmaking process and the breaks he had when making the film, with clips from the film rather than any behind the scenes moments, with some repetition on content that's already covered in the documentary proper. He continues to provide an update on Where Are They Now (2:44) at the time of the DVD release, for the top executives of Ken Lay (who is now controversially dead), Jeffrey Skilling, Andy Fastow and Liu Pai who probably got the best deal amongst all for walking away very early. A Conversation with Bethany McLean (7:35) and A Conversation with Peter Elkind (5:05) are talking head pieces with the writers of the book, although containing nothing already heard in one way or another in the film itself.

HDNet's Higher Definition: Highlights from The Enron Show (12:11) is hosted by Robert Wilonsky, critic from the Dallas Observer who conducted separate interviews with the authors of the book Bethany McLean and Peter Elkind, while Firesign Theatre: The Fall of Enron (3:17) is a behind the scenes look at the comedy skit broadcast recorded by Firesign Theatre, and more comedy of sorts come from Alex Gibney Reads Enron Skits (4:28), one of which you would have seen in the film, and you really don't know if you should laugh or cry at the blatantness and irony of the jokes.

There are 18 political cartoons included in A Gallery of Enron Cartoons, while Fortune Magazine Articles contains the text reproduction of three articles which are "Is Enron Overpriced" that was featured prominently in the film, "Enron Banks Dodge a Bullet" and "Partners in Crime". Updates on the Web & Enron Book is just a page containing links for the latest information and updates, the book on which the film is based upon and its soundtrack. Rounding up the Bonus Material is a series of Trailers (7:26) for Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room, Bubble, The War Within and League of Ordinary Gentlemen, with a Play All option.

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