Enron spent 16 years building up $65 billion in assets. It took a mere 24 days to lose it all. However, American history's largest corporate bankruptcy is not simply an arcane tale of accounting practices and financial formulas gone horribly awry. In director Alex Gibney's Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room (now out on DVD), the scandal is illuminated as a tragedy of human frailties and hubris, the type of saga that would make Shakespeare or the Greek masters proud.
Based on the best-selling book written by Fortune reporters Bethany McLean and Peter Elkind, Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room is not your normal investigative documentary. Rather, Gibney's film combines gripping visuals, an eclectic pop-music score and pithy voice-over to give viewers a real sense of the amoral corporate culture that contributed to its own implosion. Driving the story are the film's central characters, Andy Fastow, Jeff Skilling and Ken Lay, three execs whose ethical indiscretions and personal excesses allowed them to walk away with millions, while Enron's investors and employees lost everything.
"The tragedy ultimately was what happened to the employees and shareholders, but there was an aspect of these people at the center who had such delusions of grandeur that it blinded them to everything else around them," Gibney explains to TVGuide.com. "There is something outrageous about this story that so many people could care so much about feathering their own nests while behaving so recklessly when it came to the lives of others."
The director also cites political and cultural influences for the collapse. For example, Ken Lay's close relationship with President Bush is explored and popular economic philosophies are scrutinized.
"There was a cultural and political climate that said, 'Government is bad. Business is good and greed is good. So if everybody pursues personal gain as aggressively as possible, everything will work out for everybody a rising tide will lift all boats,'" says Gibney. "Everyone was worshipping the gospel of deregulation and free markets and vilifying government. What they forgot is that government is of the people, by the people and for the people. They vilified the role of the citizens to protect themselves."
Despite his views, Gibney insists that he holds no animosity toward the embattled execs (Lay and Skilling await trial on Jan. 30; Fastow pled guilty to fraud and was sentenced 10 years in prison) or the current presidential administration. Rather than attempting to smear individuals, his primary concern was to make the details of a story accessible to those with limited knowledge of the business world.
"It's a very complicated story. It still is, even as the trial approaches," Gibney declares. "My job was to let everyone in on what was going on. With these types of stories, you can get lost in the details when there is a bigger tale to be told. I felt a film could really do that."
Critically hailed and having made a solid box-office showing in limited theatrical release, The Smartest Guys in the Room is yet another in an increasingly long line of documentaries finding success on the silver screen. Gibney sees this as a by-product of a couple of different factors. "The old investigative stuff on TV is gone. Nobody wants to offend anybody on television. Audiences will go to a movie theater to see what you can't see on television," he claims. "I also think that documentaries have just gotten better. They focus a lot more on dramatic values like story and character. When documentaries do that, they engage audiences. I think that's why people are going to see them in larger numbers."