The Netflix Report

Movie reviews from my Netflix queue. Highly personal and opinionated!

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Monday, April 17, 2006

Enron: The Smartest Guys In The Room

At last... A movie where I don't have to worry about giving away spoilers in the review! This is a documentary about the executives at the top of Enron and how their actions and philosophies led to the largest corporate bankruptcy in American history. You should know the general story already from the massive media coverage. This will give you a little more familiarity with the key players who are about to be involved in the main criminal trials (Skilling, Lay, and on the prosecution side, Fastow).

I have mixed feelings about the documentary. On the plus side, it covers a tremendous amount of time, corporate activities, personalities, and intricate dealings in a mostly linear and organized fashion. It does give you some insight into the key players you might not have had before. And while it makes sure to mention the common people who were hurt in the scandal, it does not go sensationalistic or maudlin, focusing on tear-stained faces. It also is not simply a hack attack, demonizing the executives as modern-day Hitlers.

But on the negative side, it's really an amateurish piece of filmmaking. Talking head interviews are filmed way too close to their subjects so that you are uncomfortable watching and listening to them. Segues and supporting audio and visuals are superficial and obvious. One example I can remember offhand: The narrator (Peter Coyote, who reads VERY well!) says "It seemed that the ability to make money was like some kind of black magic." The movie then shows some stock imagery of a stage magician doing handkerchief and rabbit tricks while they play a pop version of "That Old Black Magic" loudly on the soundtrack. Okay, okay... we GET it! This combination of pop song repeating the script phrase and stock photography alluding to it is repeated often enough to get tiresome.

I was also frustrated when they would talk about some of the financial dealings that were central to the manipulation of the company's stock prices and market energy prices with no underlying explanation. If you don't understand the world of energy futures trading, the subtleties of arbitrage, and the sheltering of funds in partner corporations, you will be lost as each of these aspects is spoken of as some kind of serious problem, but never explained as to exactly WHAT was going on.

One of the very interesting aspects to me as a resident Californian during the infamous rolling blackouts and subsequent pillorying of Gray Davis was their coverage of the manipulations that made this occur. They play a number of audio tapes with conversations between the traders who were pulling the strings and it is a perfect non-fiction version of the movie "Boiler Room" that I reviewed last month. These guys had no conscience and no sense of personal responsibility other than corporate profits.

I would recommend a viewing to help you appreciate and better understand the trials that are coming up (or possibly occurring by the time you read this). I now know to watch for a spectacularly acrimonious vendetta between Fastow and Lay/Skilling, which I wouldn't have understood before.

Parents alert: Obviously the kiddies won't be able to follow this or be engaged by it. There is one scene with bare breasted pole dancers at a strip club. Gratuitous? I should think so.

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