While 2004 was a breakthrough year for political documentaries, the election encouraged urgency over fastidiousness, due to the need to get the work out while it could still have an impact. One of the more popular formats involved adapting an existing exposé, centering the documentary around interviews with the authors and other talking heads, which solved the time issue by simply regurgitating information that had already been thoroughly researched. Hence the half-assed likes of Bush's Brain (based on the book by James Moore and Wayne Slater), which swipes fecklessly at Karl Rove, one of the fattest targets in the President's inner circle. Yet Alex Gibney's first-rate Enron: The Smartest Guys In The Room reprises the same book-to-film formula to powerful effect, perhaps because Gibney took the time to make sense of a complicated scandal. In a way, Enron may be the most damning Bush documentary to date, and he's merely a tangential figure in a corporate collapse that's shocking in its implications.
Handsomely produced and photographed, which alone distinguishes it from the guerrilla standards of its cut-rate peers, Enron succeeds most by simply making a complex situation graspable, a tall order when the perpetrators are masters of grand-scale deception. Within the space of one year, energy giant Enron went from ranking as an innovative Fortune 500 darling, peaking at $73 per share in August 2000, to collapsing into bankruptcy within a few weeks, robbing tens of thousands of rank-and-file employees of their jobs and retirement savings. As the bubble burst on a company artificially inflated by stock manipulation and buried losses, the scheme's architects dumped their holdings, while encouraging investors and employees to pour their fortunes into a sinking ship. Smartly structured in bite-size chapters, guided along by Peter Coyote's narration and authors Bethany McLean and Peter Elkind, the film uncovers a multi-faceted fraud, with each individual willfully playing his part.
At times, the arrogance and hubris of Enron executives takes on comically evil proportions, as in an in-house video that spoofs the "mark-to-market" scam that allowed the company to profit off its own speculation of future profits. Were it pure fiction, Enron would entertain like a great heist picture, brilliantly orchestrated to the last detail, but the real-life fallout is so far-reaching that film registers as monumentally sad. Much like the S&L scandals of the '80s, when government deregulation encouraged a Wild West of greedy, unconscionable business practices, the Enron debacle speaks to an insidious revival of the same glad-handing corporate culture. And with no one in power looking out for the little guy–the consumer, the wage slave, the individual investor–the film suggests more scandals to come.