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Bethany McLean, who along with Peter Elkind, wrote the book from which this documentary was adapted, is clearly satisfied with herself as she sits on a couch relating what she knows about the fall of Enron. And she should be. She was the one who first really pursued the question, "How does Enron make money?" What she didn't know when she first asked the question is that they make money the old-fashioned way, they steal it.

What I was most forcibly struck with while watching this fascinating story is how much all the posturing and lying and misrepresenting of the talking heads, Jeff Skilling, Kenneth Lay, et al., reminded me of George W. Bush, Dick Cheney, et al., in the White House. The key similarity is the use of their power over the media and in front of a podium to mislead the minions and the public to their advantage. Without the ability to lie to large numbers of people at the same time, and to stifle and belittle contrary voices, they would not have succeeded.

But also there is the complacency and the complicity of not just the greedy stockholders and the adoring employees, but the greater public who failed to ask not "why?" but "how?" In the case of Enron, how can a company exceed not only all expectations, but something like the law of financial gravity? If it looks too good to be true and nobody can give you a clear answer to how it's done--guess what? It is too good to be true. It may seem a stretch, but the same kind of mentality continues to persuade Nigerian scammers and "Congratulations: You've Won!!!" emailers that there are still fat bank accounts in America just waiting to be emptied. Nobody wanted to look too closely because nobody wanted to prick a bubble. Instead everybody wanted to believe that things that go up never have to come down (at least not now), and that the smartest guys in the room really were, and thanks to them we are all going to get rich, or at least we can applaud and admire from the sidelines.

Another failure is that of not looking critically at the cultural climate and the mentality of the traders and their bosses, whose morality (in the form of emails and public pronouncements) was that of people who would cheat their best friend, who would steal from widows and orphans (no exaggeration: they did) and laugh about it.

And the bankers and the brokerage firms, the federal watch dogs and the Congress--where were they? Lapping it up like lap dogs, getting paid off or having their campaigns funded by the robber barons at Enron. Greed is good! It's the American way! Deregulate everything! The police force, the army; and free enterprise and the magical, invisible hand of the marketplace will bring us unprecedented and unparalleled riches. Burp!

No, the honchos at Enron were not the smartest guys in the room. They were the sickest. Smart guys would have made a good living, maybe even enough to buy that house on the hill, a vacation home in some warm clime, while having banked and invested enough to send the kids and grandkids to good schools, and been satisfied. They might even have taken some pride in the work they were doing. But how can you take pride in your work when you are essentially stealing from others, especially when you are stealing from the very people who work for you and trust you? The smartest guys in the room would not have thrown so much time and energy into ripping people off, into gratifying a warped desire to financially lord it over others. They would not be those who cared more about ratcheting up their millions than they did about anything else in life. People who care about winning so massively and so cruelly are not smart. They aren't even well. They are the sickest guys in the room.

Alex Gibney (who also wrote and produced the excellent The Trials of Henry Kissinger 2002) is to be commended for making the kind of documentary that informs, enlightens and appalls. The footage from corporate meetings, press conferences, company skits (oh, what fun they had!) and interviews with the principals and those they ruined make for a most engaging moral lesson. The story unfolds like some kind of pathological tragedy from inside a fascist state or like the neoconned White House where public pronouncements are made with only one goal in mind: deception. What fools these morals be. And the biggest fools are the greediest whose lives are lived in empty pursuit of nothing more than naked power with which they can buy nothing of value that they didn't already have.
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VINE VOICEon 27 July 2006
It was never going to get a fair hearing. If there was any defence in one of the most nauseating cases of corporate pillaging, self-aggrandisement and greed it was not going to be seen in this film, shown in Brixton's Ritzy Cinema. The chalk board on the door to the screen set the scene.

What emerges is a staggering story of a corporation romping over the established rules and procedures, riding the bull market to new highs and only crashing down when the people saw that the

The truly tragic thing is not the tales of the various executives, marketing men and lawyers. Some of them lost their jobs, but soon found others. The criminals went to jail, and had their ill-gotten gains confiscated. But the real victims were only fleetingly shown. This was a sole complaint in the otherwise masterly editing of this film. A thorough investigation in to the losses borne by the pensioners and pension holders would have presented a truly staggering contrast to the corporate greed on clear display.

What does emerge is a smattering of personal stories which gives some idea of the extent of the damage done. Private pensions shrunk from £350,000 to $1,500. And with it the dreams of a comfortable retirement destroyed. These were the ordinary people, long-term employees with rock solid utility companies who had invested everything with their new parent company, Enron. With promises of riches for all, they funded the bloated, wallowing greed, and they paid the ultimate price for its inevitable failure.
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on 30 March 2006
Alex Gibney's riveting documentary is based on the acclaimed book "The Smartest Guys in the Room" by Bethany McLean and Peter Elkind. Chronicled is the corporate crime of the century by the movie following the inevitable toppling of the seventh-largest business operation in the U.S. Peter Coyote narrates this mind boggling odyssey of greed, arrogance, ethical malfeasance, and power plays through which Enron is changed from a properous natural gas pipeline company to a multinational mehemoth.
The major characters responsible for Enron's downfall could not be interviewed for the movie because they refused to be. But Gibney gives us lots of insights into their leadership style with news footage, corporate audio and video tapes, a comedy skit performed in front of employees, C-Span clips, and a catalog of other visual and recorded material.
Incredibly, even NOW Texan Kenneth Lay, the son of a Baptist preacher and close friend of President George W. Bush (affectionately referring to him as "Kenny Boy"), and Lay's hand-picked CEO, Jeffrey Skilling, deny any wrongdoing. One segment reveals that Skilling's favorite book is "The Selfish Gene." The Darwinian manifesto presents a dog-eat-dog version of human nature. Money is the only thing that counts for Skilling. His ruthlessness coming from such a philosophy is demonstrated throughout his predatory career. Skilling's "mark-to-market" accounting tricks worked long enough to give him the hubris to believe that anything was possible for Enron because they were "the smartest guys in the room."
The documentary reinacts the suicide of Enron executive Cliff Baxter; exposes the magic tricks of CFO Andy Fastow, who had made millions for the company through shell companies that covered up Enron's staggering debt. One of the deceptively quiet raiders, Lou Pai, a right-hand man for Skilling, was a mysterious figure with a penchant for strippers -- who cashed in his stock options and ran off with hundreds of millions of Enron's dollars.
Whistleblower Sherron Watkins' interviews illumioates the inner workings of Enron's corporate culture. Indeed, the callousness and heartlessness of these go-getters are revealed throughout the documentary. Yet the most depressing part is that the Enron scandal could only have happened by so many accountants, lawyers, Wall Street traders, investment bank analysts, and government regulators looking the other way for years. They enabled Enron's corporate corruption to grow. They were too compromised to speak the truth in the face of power. As a result, millions of ordinary investors were royally screwed, and thousands of Enron employees lost their life savings.
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on 1 November 2015
I do not know how someone could enjoy story of theft and American economic acrobatic Friedmanism and Reganism executed by $ fellow travellers. This is what the whole economic civilization has to chew . In China such operators would be shot and usable organs would be sold to poor USA for recycling - would it be not fair ? Bush Rumsfeld Cunda Rice Ashcroft , Soros , Wolfowitz Pearle Lieberman all are the same they should be hanged .
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TOP 500 REVIEWERon 7 March 2015
Very enjoyable and informative documentary covering one of the largest frauds in corporate history. Enron were an energy company with big ideas - as they failed to meet their ambitions they employed numerous artifices and frauds to hide the truth until it all imploded in spectacular fashion. The DVD features footage of all the main characters this drama, and makes clear that even the smartest of people are happy to fool themselves ( and everyone else) at times - and it is all the rest of us who take the pain for their arrogance and hubris
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VINE VOICEon 3 December 2014
I watched this after reading 'Conspiracy of Fools' by Kurt Eichenwald. I wanted to see what the characters looked and sounded like. Skilling definitely sounded impressive, but as it turned out, managed to inspire misguided confidence.

I was a bit disappointed because it brought home to me the difference between books and films. Books can carry huge amounts of information, films only skim the surface. Watching this felt like reading the summary on the back of a book jacket.

Andy Fastow features a lot in the book, but he's only a minor character in the film. They focus more on the traders in the film with the recordings of the telephone calls that revealed their sharp practices.

Bethany McLean, the journalist who exposed the Enron hype, features heavily in this film. She's an inspiring figure.

I'm glad I read the book first.
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on 25 June 2013
(Title taken from an actual question read out by Kenneth Lay in an employee Q and A session).

I vaguely knew story of Enron, but as a Brit I didn't follow it to closely. Based on Roger Ebert's review I rented this, to see if I could get a more complete understanding of what happened and why. This documentary takes us through the rise and down fall of Enron and asks why they did what they did and why it ended in disaster. It is still an relevant lesson, especially in light of what we see happening now, both in the US and the UK.

In a nutshell their mark to market accounting practice let them post their expected profit for every project as a real profit whether they actually got the money or not. Big losses were buried and in order to keep the stock price rising higher and higher they started fraudulently shifting money to shell companies, actually owned by their Chief Financial Officer (talk about a conflict of interest). Along the way so they completely disrupted California's power grid as to create artificial shortages (by asking plant managers to shut down for `repairs') and emptied their employee's retirement funds leaving them with peanuts to live on.

But the surprise, as the film points out, not what was done. The surprise is that all the regulators, lawyers, assessors, directors with fiduciary duties and everyone else who's job it was to say no to these harebrained ideas, said yes and took a piece of the pie. Did nobody think that company that made no profit would eventually fail, regardless of how clever the accounting? Presumably they thought they could just testify that they knew nothing about it and walk away clean. This documentary will make you quietly angry at the selfishness and arrogance of all involved, and it is important that you are.

The documentary makes use of interviews, tape recordings, some surveillance style video to tell the story. Apart from the rather dramatic reconstruction of a suicide (a bit over the top, perhaps) it is down to earth and sensible, but doesn't talk down to it's audience. My next stop after this will probably be Inside Job [DVD] [2011]which was made about five years later. It will be interesting to see if the perspective has changed. If you would prefer this sort of thing dramatised you could always pick up the excellent Margin Call [Blu-ray]with Kevin Spacey and Zachary Quinto. However, you owe it to yourself to understand what has happened at these big companies and why these things are not isolated blips.

Given everything that we have seen the past few years, from Goldman Sachs and Lehman Brothers, to Hbos and the MP's expenses scandal, the horse meat scandal and even the BP and Shell price rigging inquiry, it seems that there is a complete lack of integrity in our basic business and government institutions, from Banks to Oil and Utilities companies, Food Suppliers, and more. When the economy was booming it seemed to matter less, but now when every penny counts we see the real cost. When people question this outrageous behaviour they are told not to be naive. Don't think that just because it says Beef Lasagne on the label that it will actually have beef in it or that an independent assessor is going to do anything other than take a backhander to repeat the company line. And as long as we excuse greed, lies and outright fraud as a part of business practice we will get nothing but more of the same. People ought to aspire to more than stepping on someone else for money, and at some point you have to hold people accountable for the effect their behaviour has in the real world.
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on 1 July 2015
Another insight into the greed and corruption of American Big Business - just like the Credit/Sub-Prime crisis, limitless and unscrupulous greed is shown alongside the lies and deceptions which thrive in an unregulated ( Ronald Reagan / Maggie Thatcher) banking Big Bang. A fascinating and frightening expose' of what some people get away with .....if you let them!
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on 30 September 2008
I really wanted to like this film. With the current credit crisis, I was looking forward on getting an exposé on one of the biggest US corporate scandals. However, I have to say, it's a wasted opportunity with a subject that could have made a GREAT documentary, which this is NOT.

It suffers from the following:

- Too many narrative voices. Didn't the editors ever hear the term 'less is more'? Instead they went for 'more is more' and the result is a mess. Too many opinions and not enough facts. Too many people offering 'cute' statements and metaphors. Because of this you never get a clear analysis of what precisely happened with this company or precisely how it evolved and the culture it emerged from.

- Kitsch use of music and constant cutting from source to source (see above). There is no sense of a narrative arc. Constant recourse to gossip. The film makers also allude to politics but in a superficial partisan fashion. We never get the 'why' question answered.

- As the director says in the extras, he was interested in the film because it was about people. The problem with this is that actually the people aren't very interesting. What is interesting is the ideas and the assumptions people are acting on. Since he knows nothing about the history or politics of these ideas, there is no context for this story to possibly be meaningful. It just becomes about how people make mistakes, are too greedy or commit fraud, when there are wider questions at stake.

- What is really interesting in this film (despite itself) is the conversations between Enron traders, the corporate photos of CEOs, the weird corporate videos, the feeling for life in that office culture, the fact they fired 15% of their work force to keep people on their toes (explaining the extreme risk taking at the heart of the company - a connection they don't actually make incidentally). However, the film makers never make use of this material. The empty desks are never allowed to be poignant, the CEO portraits are never left to be tragic. The material is never allowed to speak for itself. They fluff it.

All in all it's a mess about a mess. I got angry about the film making as much as Enron. If this was in more talented film maker's hands, it could have been an astounding film that could have said a lot about US corporate and financial culture, which seems to be ending right now. A missed opportunity.
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on 11 November 2015
A bewildering account of the downfall of a major corporate, which you couldn't make up if you tried. It's all old news in a way, of course, with corporate corruption being as old as the hills. What modern communications and media gives us here though is a compelling insight into staggeringly brazen corruption from those who thought they could just keep getting away with it. Fascinating watching.
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