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5 reviews, 13 user ratings

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Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room
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by PaulBryant

"Man’s inhumanity to man makes countless thousands rich."
4 stars

Enron was a company created by smart guys, run by smart guys, and destroyed by the stupid ways smart guys sometimes conduct business. Ruthless tactics for making huge profits is the name of the corporate game, and help create within a business the assumption by ‘good people’ that the bad things they do are not so bad – merely good business. This is their story.

Stanley Milgram conducted a study in the 1960’s where paid participants in an experiment were used in order to see whether administering electric shocks to a person could improve their memory. A volunteer ‘shocker’ was separated by a wall from the acting ‘shockee’, and was told by a stern-looking experiment conductor to give the other man an electric shock of increasing intensity for every wrong answer he gave to the memory test.

The questions were deliberately answered incorrectly, and the voltage was started fairly low - 15 volts - with the men on the other side of the partition screaming in pain as though they had actually been hit with a jolt of electricity. They hadn’t, of course, but the unfortunate folks who were doling out the punishments believed they were being increasingly harmed (especially as the shocking device had warnings showing danger of each voltage increase – even labeling the higher voltage switches with XXX). What was astonishing is that not one single person stopped the experiment before reaching 300 volts. All protested, all became agitated, but each one followed orders given by the ‘experimenter’ to "continue the experiment". They hated what they were doing. They didn't want to harm somebody, but when the experimenter said he would assume full responsibility, they went right ahead with it.

After WWII, when men like Adolf Eichmann were on trial for war crimes, being evaluated as "sane" by panels of psychologists, and calling themselves victims of an evil system, Stanley Milgram wanted to see whether so-called monsters could actually be created from seemingly civil, ordinary people. His astonishing results went a long way (albeit in an extremely unethical experiment) in proving that "good people" could do horrible things - things they didn’t necessarily want to do - just because they were told it was important they do so.

The people behind the downfall of Enron are victims of this type of entrapment. In the corporate world, of course, the electric shocks come in the form of unethical treatment of humans in the name of profit, and the guilt felt by the inflictors of pain is replaced by huge salaries. Of course, now the wall that separated the shocker from the shockee doesn't exist, and the screams are so often not heard. A fair bit of irony is gleaned from Milgram’s experiment and how it relates to the Enron story, as the knowledge that one of the major ways Enron abused innocent people was in turning OFF their electricity - a tale brilliantly detailed in a long segment of the documentary focusing on California’s energy crisis.

The fate of the individuals who were employees of Enron were in the hand of the higher-ups – the Ken Lays, the Jeff Skillings. These men instilled not a go-getter attitude, but a cutthroat all-or-nothing environment that brutally “let go” huge amounts of employees merely based on fellow employees’ reports on each others performance abilities. Don’t make enough cash? You don’t keep your job. Have a conscience that tells you you’re doing the wrong thing? Won’t have a job unless you change.

The film would make a great companion piece to Mark Achbar and Jennifer Abbott’s The Corporation. I know I for one was checking off the psychopath checklist in my mind as the exploits of another soulless entity ravaged away morality and decency in the calculated struggle for a few more green portraits of Presidents.

The documentary itself, despite massive interest value, does have its weak points. Too many obvious music numbers make the Fahrenheit 9/11 soundtrack look positively subtle in comparison, and the awkward, slovenly out-of-place suicide re-enactment sets the film off to a bumpy start. A few more potholes in the road arrive in the form of reiterated metaphors the film’s talking heads use to incessantly compare Enron to both the “Titanic” and a “house of cards”.

Surely what is most appalling about the Enron debacle is how long it took for the company to crumble after so many years of shifty bookkeeping. Or maybe it’s that the stock prices for the company were able to rise so high with no real assets to back them up. But probably it is these things, a hell of a lot more, and, frighteningly, the fact that it took so long for anyone to (as the company so often promoted itself) ask why.

The film is essential for bringing a human face to the people within Enron. Behind the numbers, the lost jobs, the failing stock, and the scandal we all slightly know, were human beings. How did they get there? How could they have let this happen? They weren’t always monsters were they? Sp what changed them? The film offers us brilliant detail, as well as admirable scope, to a situation we all need to know a little more about.

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originally posted: 05/04/05 08:58:14
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OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2005 Sundance Film Festival. For more in the 2005 Sundance Film Festival series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2005 SXSW Film Festival. For more in the 2005 South By Southwest Film Festival series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2005 Sydney Film Festival For more in the 2005 Sydney Film Festival series, click here.

User Comments

10/28/09 the dork knight Very effective and digging deep into the psyche of the suits in charge. Greatest con ever? 5 stars
3/01/08 mormor613 should be required viewing in ethics, business courses 4 stars
2/13/07 johnnyfog A little too dramatized, but unmasks total stupidity of Wall Street 5 stars
8/17/06 Mary Beth brilliant; watched it twice and read the book after 5 stars
5/18/06 Phil M. Aficionado EricDSnider never HEARD of Enron before the scandal? Really? Stunning. Great film. 5 stars
11/22/05 giang gghhjjj 4 stars
5/31/05 frekko I liked this even though i did not know the whole story about enron. 5 stars
5/06/05 Michelle Lofton unbelievably believable! 5 stars
5/05/05 Christy Schultz Makes you think about things 4 stars
5/02/05 Dorothy Malm good movie, thankfully this kind of business practice is illegal now. 4 stars
4/20/05 Monster W. Kung These people make me wanna vomit. 5 stars
4/17/05 Kathleen Cunningham This film should help to make the scales fall from the eyes of the American public. 5 stars
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  22-Apr-2005 (R)
  DVD: 17-Jan-2006



Directed by
  Alex Gibney

Written by

  John Beard
  Jim Chanos
  Carol Coale
  Peter Coyote
  Gray Davis

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