Downfall of the 'Smartest'; Factual Probe of the Enron Scandal

Article excerpt


"Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room," written and directed by Alex Gibney, is a timely and diverting refresher course on the financial scandals that engulfed the Houston-based energy supplier-trader.

A comprehensive but still interim summation, "Smartest Guys" is derived from an authoritative early chronicle of the Enron collapse co-authored by Fortune magazine reporters Bethany McLean and Peter Elkind. A new account, "Conspiracy of Fools," by New York Times reporter Kurt Eichenwald, has just been published.

The federal trials of chief executive officer Kenneth Lay and chief operating officer Jeffrey Skilling begin in January. When Mr. Gibney was in town recently to promote his movie, he acknowledged that a supplement, if not a full-blown sequel, might be appropriate once the verdicts or final pleas are history.

Miss McLean and Mr. Elkind are prominent and engaging interview subjects for Mr. Gibney, who also makes adroit use of such disillusioned Enron executives as Mike Muckleroy and Sherron Watkins. The exceptionally well-informed can probably point to neglected avenues of investigation that would elude most spectators.

For example, my wife once worked for a government agency closely involved in monitoring power policy. According to her, the Enron appetite for speculation that precipitated a pricing crisis among oblivious utilities in California in early 2001 was preceded by smaller-scale adventurism in Massachusetts and Pennsylvania.

Mr. Gibney can be indulged a few shortcuts while attempting to summarize a complicated, sprawling business story teeming with characters and incidents by turns unsavory and entertaining. He manages to capture the essence of the thing: the deep-set human need to believe in confidence men and the promise of bonanzas just over the horizon. …