A frustratingly not-terrible action thriller.
This is not a political documentary. It is a crime story. No matter what your politics, "Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room" will make you mad. It tells the story of how Enron rose to become the seventh largest corporation in America with what was essentially a Ponzi scheme, and in its last days looted the retirement funds of its employees to buy a little more time.
There is a general impression that Enron was a good corporation that went bad. The movie argues that it was a con game almost from the start. It was "the best energy company in the world," according to its top executives Kenneth Lay and Jeffrey Skilling. At the time they made that claim, they must have known that the company was bankrupt, had been worthless for years, had inflated its profits and concealed its losses through bookkeeping practices so corrupt that the venerable Arthur Anderson accounting firm was destroyed in the aftermath.
The film shows how it happened. To keep its stock price climbing, Enron created good quarterly returns out of thin air. One accounting tactic was called "mark to market," which meant if Enron began a venture that might make $50 million 10 years from now, it could claim the $50 million as current income. In an astonishing in-house video made for employees, Skilling stars in a skit that satirizes "HFV" accounting, which he explains stands for "Hypothetical Future Value." Little did employees suspect that was more or less what the company was counting on.
Skilling and Lay were less than circumspect at times. When a New York market analyst questions Enron's profit and loss statements during a conference call, Skilling can't answer and calls him an "a-hole;" that causes bad buzz on the street. During a Q&A session with employees, Lay actually reads this question from the floor: "Are you on crack? If you are that might explain a lot of things. If you aren't, maybe you should be."