You’ve heard the names. You’ve seen the faces. You may even have stopped on a congressional hearing or breaking news story while flipping through the channels in the last four years. No matter what your experience is on the subject matter, the name Enron is sure to elevate discontentment even for those who only recognize the corporate moniker from episode No. 298 of “The Simpsons” where a rollercoaster amply tagged Enron’s “Ride of Broken Dreams” is ridden into the ground by some of the cartoon characters.
What Alex Gibney, 50, producer/writer/director of “Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room,” accomplishes in his documentary is filling the plot holes in a series of events, which started in July 1985 when Houston Natural Gas merged with InterNorth to form Enron to the start of criminal trials in November 2004, and offers a chronological, dramatic and comical take to the tactlessness of Enron’s business executives.
“[Enron] is a very complicated story,” Gibney told me at Austin’s downtown Hilton Hotel during the 2005 South By Southewest Film Festival. “The toughest part was to be able to boil it down so that people could understand it. I think a lot of people were aware that something bad happened at Enron, but most people didn’t know what had happened.”
With that understanding, Gibney transformed names like Ken Lay, Jeff Skilling, Cliff Baxter and Andy Fastow, and business terms like “mark-to-market accounting” (a method that allows companies to report estimated value on a contract as a profit, instead of when actual cash comes in) into household dialect for even the most novice of stock market players.
“It was important to me to be clear enough about what happened in the financial scandal,” Gibney said. “The Enron story at the end of the day is not really a story about numbers or special purpose entities. It’s a story about people. And that is what ultimately pulls the film together.”
Finding the inspiration to shoot the documentary after reading the book “The Smartest Guys in the Room: The Amazing Rise and Scandalous Fall of Enron” by journalists Bethany McLean and Peter Elkind, Gibney said he was determined to find the roots of greed in American culture and what it takes for someone to deceive others for their own benefit.
“I had never thought about making a film about Enron, but when I read the book it was what got me interested,” Gibney said. “It was such a powerful human drama. It’s a dramatic story about people and how they went wrong.”
Although he feels that Enron executives did not sketch out their business plan with fraud in mind, Gibney said through his intense research for the film he could see Lay and Skilling, the lead antagonists of the Enron debacle, “looking for whatever loopholes they could find and taking advantage” of the system.
“It was a progressive process,” Gibney explained calling Lay and Skilling’s dealings “economic terrorism.” “They created this financial illusion that got worse and worse and worse. So when a harsh light was cast onto it, the whole thing came crashing down.”
Today, Gibney views corporate America as a “cutthroat” business that is built on the ideals of self-indulgence. Although he says the “kill or be killed” ideology is the backbone to many corporations, it’s not a surefire way to end up like the Enron corporation if a business is run in that aspect.
“The system is based on greed,” Gibney said. “The key is, ‘What is the balance?’ Every business is designed to make as much money as possible but the question then is, ‘Is that what it should all be about or does business have to have values? Does business need to worry about its employees or just its executives?’ These are key questions in what kind of society we are going to make. In Enron they set up a system where if you trampled over people you got hugely rewarded. They took greed further than anybody else had ever taken it.”