Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room

Posted on April 22, 2005 at 9:50 am

Lowest Recommended Age: Mature High Schooler
Profanity: Very strong language
Alcohol/ Drugs: References to drinking, bars
Violence/ Scariness: Character commits suicide (off-camera)
Diversity Issues: Strong and honorable female characters
Date Released to Theaters: 2005

“Ask why.”

That was the question at the end of the television commercials for Enron, five years in a row Fortune magazine’s “most innovative company” for the way it revolutionized the market for natural gas. But, as we all now know too well, its greatest innovation was in the area of financial fraud. It went from being the seventh largest company in the country in 2000 to the then-largest bankruptcy in American history. More than $60 billion just evaporated, much of it the retirement savings of workers at Enron and other companies. This movie asks: why?

And while it does a good job of explaining some of the financial shenanigans in a manner that is not just clear but entertaining, the great strength of the film is its conclusion that this is not a story about numbers; it is a story about people.

And the people at Enron made up a cast of characters no fiction writer could top. There’s former Enron vice chairman Cliff Baxter, whose suicide begins the story. He was one of the “men with spikes” the tough guys who created Enron’s macho culture. His bi-polar disorder problems made him especially suitable for the job of deal-maker for the company because of the energy and drive he had during the manic phases. But when things spun out of control, he was so completely devastated that he spiraled into depression and killed himself.

And there’s Enron founder Ken Lay, the son of a poor preacher, whose driving ambition led him to reward the perpetrators of an early fraud, thus setting the foundation for a corporate culture that rewarded people for the money they brought in, regardless of the violations of ethics or laws. Lou Pi was the executive who got away before it all fell apart, retiring to Hawaii with his stripper wife. Sherron Watkins was the whistleblower who first identified the accounting fraud in an email that warned, “I am incredibly nervous that we will implode in a wave of accounting scandals.” James Chanos was the man who tipped off Fortune Magazine writer Bethany McLean to the fact that Enron was not all it wanted people to think it was. (The movie does not reveal that he was a short seller who had a lot to gain if the stock declined in value.) John Olson was the securities analyst who was fired because he dared to criticize Enron. His firm got a huge business deal from Enron as soon as he was gone.

At the heart of the story, though, are two people, Jeff Skilling and Andrew Fastow. Former CEO Skilling remade himself from a pudgy in glasses who sat at a desk to a guy with Lasik surgery who took everyone on extreme outings to see who was tough. More consultant than operating executive, he cared only about “big ideas,” and had no patience for the details of execution. Skilling accepted the job at Enron contingent on the company’s agreement to use a very agressive form of accounting called “mark to market,” meaning that they booked all of the potential returns from a deal the minute the deal was signed, without waiting to see if the deal proceeded as anticipated. So when a huge energy plant was built in India, they booked all the potential revenue of their rosy predictions immediately even though the energy produced by the plant turned out to be too expensive for the community to support, so instead of making money, it lost money. One of the film’s most stunning moments is video footage of a company skit in which Skilling jokes about using “hypothetical future value” accounting. But for Enron, that’s what “mark to market” really was.

But where they really got into trouble was when CFO Andrew Fastow created a series of “special purpose entitites” to hide the company’s debt. The board waived the conflict of interest rules to allow Fastow to be an officer of those companies and to essentially be selling assets to himself –and paying himself very, very well — he made $30 million from those deals. Meanwhile, the Enron traders (as one Senator says, “that’s t-r-a-d-e-r-s,” not “traitors”) were manipulating (and cheating) to squeeze Californians by denying them electricity so they could drive up the prices.

The movie has stunning documentation, including footage of a sales pitch by Fastow, looking like the cat who is still licking the cream off his whiskers, and audiotapes of the rapacious and ruthless California t-r-a-d-e-r-s. Writer/director Alex Gibney was fascinated by the way that the Enron executives were, in a real sense, telling a story almost as though they were making a movie. He uses the techniques of film-making, from stock footage inserts (gamblers, a magician) and historical context to soundtrack choices and and present-day interviews to reveal that their “real” story was fiction. He noted that one stock shot of a sky-diver, intended to convey risk-taking, in the context of the film is a reminder of Icarus, the boy who fell into the sea because he flew too close to the sun.

What made it possible for them to lie so much and so long? Part of it was that they really believed in what they were doing. They thought that if they just cheated a little bit, long enough to fool people while they got the thing going, eventually it would work the way they designed it. But it never did. They frantically tried to expand their original good idea, trying to make markets in everything from broadband to weather. They even (not shown in the film) created a fake trading floor to fool the securities analysts who flew in for a tour. What they saw were secretaries, pulled in from other floors, who pretended to be traders buying and selling when they were really just talking to each other.

This is a story about hubris; an updated version of an ancient Greek drama. Like Icarus, the Enron executives flew too close to the sun. It’s a story of greed, arrogance, selfishness, and a complete lack of empathy or consideration for others. Most of all, though, it is a story of people who, contrary to the slogan they touted in their ads, never asked “Why.”

Parents should know that this movie is unrated. It includes very strong language (many uses of the f-word) and brief footage of strippers. It also includes the portrayal of selfish, greedy, unethical, and illegal behavior.

Families who see this movie should talk about the importance of “asking why.” Why didn’t more people ask “why?” How do people allow themselves to become part of a culture of corruption? Who do you think is most responsible for what went on at Enron? Families should talk about some of the ethical dilemmas they have encountered and observed as well. They may also want to learn more about the famously “shocking” Stanley Milgram experiments shown in the movie.

Families who enjoy this movie will also enjoy the documentary The Corporation and fictional portrayals of corporate corruption like Wall Street and the delicious comedy The Solid Gold Cadillac. Those who want more information should read the book, Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room, by Bethany Mclean and Peter Elkind, and Power Failure, co-authored by whistleblower Sherron Watkins, who appear in the movie.

When I am not watching movies, I am o
ften writing about Enron and other corporate governance meltdowns. You can see my interview with the director of this film on my blog and the textbook I co-authored, Corporate Governance, has a DVD devoted to the Enron story.

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