Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room (15)

The geeks shall inherit the earth
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The Independent Culture

For those of us who feel like the dumbest guys in the room whenever the collapse of the Enron mega-corporation comes up in conversation, it's worth investing in Alex Gibney's Oscar-nominated documentary. It sets out in clear language, more or less, how a gas pipeline firm transformed itself into America's seventh biggest company, and how dubious book-keeping and Mephistophelean PR kept its share price skyrocketing even while its earnings were plummeting to earth. Apparently, Enron published profits which were, in reality, estimates of what its profits might be in some mythical golden future. It wasn't gas that kept the company afloat, but hot air.

Enron: The Smartest Guys In The Room is a laudable Idiot's Guide to High-Financial Scandal, but it declares in its opening minutes that it's a story of people, not print-outs. Its principal players are men who were addicted to strip clubs, and men who shut down power stations in order to bump up the price of electricity, thereby engineering the California energy crisis.

At the top of the heap were Enron's bosses, Ken Lay and Jeff Skilling. Lay is an old buddy of the Bushes, Skilling is the visionary nerd who reinvented himself, Gatsby-like, as an unshaven Action Man. The most loathsome aspect of these loathsome men wasn't their willingness to pocket tens of millions of dollars while their employees lost everything, but their continued insistence that they were decent, all-American entrepreneurs who never did anything that wasn't in "the interests of the shareholders".

It's this ability to convince themselves and others that they were the good guys that made the biggest corporate fraud case in American history possible; it's also what makes this documentary so hideously enthralling. Mind you, Enron... isn't particularly at home in the cinema, consisting as it does of archive TV news footage intercut with talking heads interviews. It leaves you in no doubt, though, that the Enron story has all the ingredients of a tragicomic thriller. If it hasn't quite made a great documentary, it's certain in a few years' time to make a great dramatised film.

n.barber@independent.co.uk

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