With "Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room," writer-director Alex Gibney takes a notorious tale of corporate greed and plays it as Greek tragedy, Texas-style.
The approach reveals him to be one of the smart guys, too. By focusing his documentary on the people behind the Enron scandal their foibles, follies and moral frailty Gibney takes a potentially dry, daunting topic and turns it into something eminently compelling.
The shredded documents, the private equity funds, the false accounting reports that contributed to the downfall of the nation's seventh-largest company all that can be stultifying stuff. But the filmmaker, working from the book by Fortune magazine reporters Bethany McLean and Peter Elkind, instead turns his attention to the human and inhumane aspects of Enron Corp.'s 2001 collapse that we can relate to, without ever dumbing down the story.
Gibney gives us corporate cowboys like Jeff Skilling, Enron's former CEO, who transformed himself from weakling to weekend warrior and instilled in his employees a Darwinian culture of testosterone and one-upmanship.
There are pathetic figures like Lou Pai, an ex-executive with a proclivity for lap dances who left his wife for his stripper girlfriend who had his baby.
There are the trader drones who, drunk with their own misguided sense of power, toyed with California's energy supplies for profit and sport.
Ken Lay, the leader of them all, comes off as completely disingenuous when he suggests he couldn't possibly have known every little detail about the company he founded, the motto of which, ironically, was, "Ask Why." Either that or he's in denial.
Gibney tells all their stories through a lively mix of news footage, re-enactments, corporate video, interviews with employees and insider audio recordings.
Simultaneously eye-opening and entertaining, the film recalls the best aspects of Michael Moore's movies. But Gibney's film thankfully lacks the stench of personal vendetta that too often marks Moore's work. He also refrains from inserting himself in the action; actor Peter Coyote serves as narrator.
One complaint, though: It would have been nice if Gibney had said on camera that he tried repeatedly to get Skilling to comment and was turned down. (Same with Lay.) Supposedly Skilling wanted to talk and is a heck of a talker but his lawyers wouldn't allow it.
"Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room" is not rated but would probably receive an R for language and nudity. Running time: 110 minutes.