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Return to 2006 Films

Index of 2006

An Inconvenient Truth
Big Bad Swim
Brokeback Mountain
Cinderella Man
The Departed
The DaVinci Code
Eron: The Smartest
Guys in the Room

Good Night and
Good Luck

Half Nelson
History of Violence
Hotel Rwanda
Little Miss Sunshine
Journey from the Fall
March of the Penguins
Million Dollar Baby
Prairie Home Companion
Star Wars III:
Revenge of the Sith

Thank You for Smoking
The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada
The Sea Inside
United 93
War of the Worlds
Walk the Line
World Trade Center

Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room
A Review by Tom Condon, OP
(St. Martin Province)

"This is not a political documentary. It is a crime story. No matter what your politics, Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room will make you mad."

Roger Ebert, Chicago Sun-Times

Late in this compelling new documentary, a minister from a church in downtown Houston is interviewed. It’s three years after the infamous downfall of Enron, and he is still counseling former employees. Reflecting on the experience, the minister says that the leaders of Enron were at the top of the world, and kept wanting more. He sighs and says: “What does it profit a man to gain the whole world, but to lose his soul?”

Even for us non-business majors, the new documentary, Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room, sheds light on one of the great scandals of our day. Based on the book, The Smartest Guys in the Room, by Peter Elkind and Bethany McLean, the film brings us inside the corporate world. We get a close look at executives Ken Lay, Jeff Skilling, and Andy Fastow. Were they nice guys who were unwittingly enveloped in world markets and trends about which they could do nothing? Were they unaware of the fraudulent accounting practices and other practices that had been going on for years? The title of the documentary certainly dispels those theories. These were no dummies. They were indeed the smartest guys in the room. In a culture which stereotypes criminals as suspicious looking foreigners, or people from disadvantaged environments, the shock of Enron is that they can also look like your class president.

Director Alex Gibney tells the story of Enron’s rise and fall with insightful interviews and film clips. What went wrong? Certainly a major component was greed. How much is enough? In addition, and perhaps even more disturbing, was the lack of checks and balances. Even though the documentary tells us time and again that the numbers at Enron “just didn’t add up,” no one was willing to come forward. Both the worlds of business and government apparently saw nothing wrong. (Ironically, one of the marketing logos of Enron was “ask why.”) Lay, Skilling, and the others could not have gotten away with what they did had others not allowed them to do it.

We see clips of pep talks, even in the last months before the collapse, in which Skilling is encouraging a group of PG&E employees to invest everything in their Enron accounts that would soon be worthless. Ken Lay gives a pep talk to employees two months before the collapse in which he assures them that Enron is really in good shape. In an interview after the collapse, Lay admits that he has “less than a million” left. Contrast that to a moving interview with a PG&E worker who had been totally wiped out. Somehow, it’s hard to feel sorry for him.

Gibney, Elkind, and McLean also tell the story of whistle blower Sherron Watkins, who began to “ask why” things didn’t make sense. Talk about prophets! I was moved by the courage of this one among so many. As Mary Catherine Hilkert, O.P., would say, her story provides a moment of “grace” amidst so much “dis-grace.”

At the end of Enron:The Smartest Guys in the Room, some people, as usual, got up immediately and left the theater. I was impressed by the numbers, who, like myself, remained seated while the credits rolled on. Walter J. Burghardt, the esteemed preacher, says that “many of us have lost, or have never had the neuralgic sensitivity to evil and injustice that ought to mark every prophet. There is so much evil, so much injustice, over the globe that we grow used to it; with TV’s remote control we can wolf our pizzas and slurp our Schlitz to the roar of rockets and the flow of blood” (Preacher As Prophet, Church, Spring 2000, 16).

I was haunted by Burghardt’s words as the drama unfolded. The power of this documentary is precisely that it is sensitive to the evil that occurred in the executive offices of Enron just a few years ago. And, of course, we know that Enron was not an isolated incident. What is going on around us, in church, state, and business, which we have become so used to that it doesn’t even bother us anymore? Where are the reporters like Elkind and McLean, and the whistle-blowers like Sherron Watkins who will rouse us from our slumber?

Before all the summer blockbusters fill the movie screen of the country, seek out this fine documentary, or catch it when it comes out on DVD in a couple of months. See if it doesn’t make you more sensitive to the power of evil and injustice in our midst.

Tom Condon, OP

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