Independent Lens: Season 8, Episode 22

Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room (13 Oct. 2005)

TV Episode  -   -  Documentary
7.9
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Ratings: 7.9/10 from 4,492 users   Metascore: 82/100
Reviews: 74 user | 234 critic | 37 from Metacritic.com

Corporate audio and videotapes tell the inside story of the scandal involving one company's manipulation of California's energy supply and its, and how its executives wrung a billion dollars out of the resulting crisis.

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Episode credited cast:
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John Beard ...
Himself
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Jim Chanos ...
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Dick Cheney ...
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Carol Coale ...
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Reggie Dees II ...
Young man the stripper dances in front of (as Reggie Deets II)
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Max Eberts ...
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Peter Elkind ...
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Andrew Fastow ...
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Storyline

Based on the best-selling book of the same name by Fortune reporters Bethany McLean and Peter Elkind, a multidimensional study of one of the biggest business scandals in American history. The chronicle takes a look at one of the greatest corporate disasters in history, in which top executives from the 7th largest company in this country walked away with over one billion dollars, leaving investors and employees with nothing. The film features insider accounts and rare corporate audio and video tapes that reveal colossal personal excesses of the Enron hierarchy and the utter moral vacuum that posed as corporate philosophy. The human drama that unfolds within Enron's walls resembles a Greek tragedy and produces a domino effect that could shape the face of our economy and ethical code for years to come. Written by Sujit R. Varma

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It's Just Business

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Documentary

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Rated R for language and some nudity | See all certifications »
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13 October 2005 (Australia)  »

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Box Office

Opening Weekend:

$76,639 (USA) (22 April 2005)

Gross:

$4,064,421 (USA) (16 September 2005)
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Did You Know?

Trivia

Among the protesters who disrupt the meeting with Jeff Skilling at San Francisco's Commonwealth Club is Marla Ruzicka, who was killed on 16 April 2005 in Iraq by a suicide bomber. She founded CIVIC (Campaign for Innocent Victims of Conflict) which worked to help the victims of the war in Iraq and she was a former Global Exchange activist. See more »

Quotes

Jeff Skilling: [comparing California to the Titanic] At least when the Titanic went down, the lights were on.
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Crazy Credits

Special thanks includes "all the `Deep Throats' - you know who you are!" See more »

Connections

Features Doctor X (1932) See more »

Soundtracks

Knee Play 1
Written by Philip Glass
Dunvagen Music Publishers, Inc.
Performed by Philip Glass
Courtesy of Nonesuch Records
By Arrangement with Warner Strategic Marketing
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User Reviews

 
An Entertaining Introduction to A Business Scandal that Affects Everyone
2 June 2005 | by (Queens, NY) – See all my reviews

"Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room" is an excellent introduction for the general public to the scandal for someone who didn't hear first-hand the warnings about the New Economy that sneered at the responsibilities of a public company or read the articles in Fortune, Wall Street Journal, NY Times, or Business Week while it was all building up, then come tumbling down.

While the film leaves out some of the technicalities, it does an entertaining job of combining talking heads, lively graphics, news clips, incendiary dramatizations (such as of busy, noisy shredders), company documents and whistleblower-obtained stunningly damning audiotapes, web broadcasts and video tapes to document how a major company could grow out of smoke and mirrors to become the largest bankruptcy of its time, bringing down countless victims with it.

Establishing an arresting time line that serves like a ticking clock, the film is excellent at visually demonstrating how other corporations, particularly lenders and brokerages, profited from not revealing the truth.

The filmmakers particularly gleefully accent the company's political connections, going beyond the popular "Kenny Boy" friendship of CEO Ken Lay with George W. to extend to the Bush clan and inner circle, including the Federal Reserve's Greenspan, to hone in on how it fomented self-serving deregulatory policies, with a special emphasis on California and its frighteningly manipulated energy, and resulting political, crisis.

The filmmakers do make some of the talking heads seem objective when they actually have their own profitable axes to grind, such as shareholder attorney William Lerarch, and let the Johnny-come-lately legislators look a little too good as they puff up at the Congressional hearings.

A bit too much is made of the executives as former nerds, as these guys weren't computer geeks; rather there were class issues at work that are hinted at in the brief biographies in the culture of traders who were entrepreneurally lifting their incomes by gambling. At the same time, whistleblower Sherron Watkins's actions and motivations are not emphasized as particularly heroic in going against the company's macho culture (the many Deep Throats cited in the credits as anonymous sources are amusing).

A delightful range of popular music is also used to emphasize points, from Tom Waits to "God Bless the Child," as well as popular culture references from "The Simpsons" to "Gordon Gekko"'s defining quote also keep the film from just being like a dry episode of PBS's "Frontline". I presume the title itself is meant to recall the classic laying bare of the men who got the U.S. mired in the Viet Nam War, Halberstam's "The Best and The Brightest." The film does slight the clear-eyed folks who were warning about the declining ethics in the accounting profession and the lack of fundamentals in the bubble investments as Enron and its ilk were on the way up -- and who were vilified in the business community for their Cassandra pronouncements.

The film does make the Enron situation seem too unique. While personalizing the stories around the head people at the company --especially as they transformed from geeks to power brokers --makes the story easier to follow in a movie, it makes this corporate culture unusual. It also lets off the management consultants, let alone the business schools' emphasis on stock price analysis, who were cheerleaders for these techniques; McKinsey and Harvard spawned at least one of the colorful figures profiled here.

This kind of egotistical "I'm top of the world, Ma" attitude in business was also typical of the Rigas at Adelphia in Pennsylvania, Ebbers at WorldCom in Mississippi, and Scrushy at HealthSouth in Birmingham, Alabama, and the just dethroned Greenberg at AIG scandal in the heart of Wall Street, shows that enough chutzpah and money can deflect anyone, anywhere, using the same techniques -- a ruthless, macho corporate culture that forces out anyone who disagrees, browbeating regulators, hiding secret accounts and spreading around manipulative corporate philanthropy.

At a NY Financial Writers' Association panel as the Enron story was breaking, they did an introspection that unfortunately is not provided by the film, on why they didn't report earlier that the emperor had no clothes (as one of the sub-chapters in the film puts it). The consensus was that the journalists realized they mistrusted the motives of the warners more than they doubted the motives of the corporate executives who were issuing the bravado reports and deflecting timid questions, even though the journalists too late realized that the executives had way more to gain than the Chicken Littles and they were intimidated by their own lack of accounting expertise to recognize the sliding slope of accounting ethics (though the film does very briefly touch on how the CPAs early on accommodated the bubble by too easily officially approving the now notorious "mark to marketing" accounting procedure that permitted the booking of goods not yet obtained, though there's no mention of casually lax acceptance of external auditing firms to simultaneously do internal auditing and profitable consulting).

McLean, a co-writer of the film whose book is the premise for most of the film, did supplement the film in an interview on Charlie Rose that should be included on the DVD by naming the "shorter" (an investor who gains if prices go down) who first had tipped her off, though she didn't there mention the local Houston business reporter she cited at the panel who was the very first one to report suspicion of Enron's numbers. She also clarified on the show that while her article in Business Week is now seen as the beginning of Enron's end, her actual findings were very mildly stated, particularly compared to the full truth as it came out, and only aroused suspicions by the ferocity of the company's denials.

Even as the film concludes with an it could happen again warning, with no analysis if Sarbanes-Oxley will help, it places too much emphasis on the uniqueness of Enron.


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