In 1987, Oliver Stone defined a decade with his superb exploration of American business that was Wall Street, yet even the devious business mastermind that was Gordon Gekko could not have dreamed up some of the things the energy giant Enron managed to get up to – and that eventually led to its downfall.
The story of Enron’s collapse was well covered at the time – the dodgy dealings, the apparent lack of any kind of morality, the links right to the very top of the American establishment – yet for many it remained a story for the business pages. Summarised in short form, which is all that many bothered to pay attention to as business stories are usually so very dull, it could seem at first to have been a fairly standard tale of capitalistic corruption.
Yet delving deeper, the complexity and depth of Enron’s misdeeds is staggering – and the disbelief grows even further the more you try to understand just how these self-professed “smartest guys in the room” could have let it get so bad. After all, as one of the interviewees points out in this fascinating documentary, “It had taken Enron 16 years to go from about ten billion of assets to about 64 billion of assets. It took them 24 days to go bankrupt.” How could such a vastly successful company have allowed things to get to the stage that the only route out was bankruptcy?
Unlike the British equivalent of the Enron scandal, the collapse of Barings Bank back in 1995, the film to have emerged to document this incredible failure of business sense from one of the most influential companies in the world has not gone down the usual, fictionalised route. The tedious Ewan McGregor flick Rogue Trader seems to have shown Hollywood that despite the off-putting nature of business-related subject matter, bringing in a big name is not necessarily the way to draw in audiences. Sometimes it is better to let the facts – and people – speak for themselves.
This is a truly superb documentary – at once easily accessible to those with absolutely no knowledge of the business world and wonderfully engaging. With a subject that could so easily have ended up dry or preachy, director Alex Gibney has managed entirely to avoid any Michael Moore sensationalism and maintain a laudable air of detached impartiality, while simultaneously drawing the audience fully in. Never before have interviews with men in grey suits been so fascinating.
Although Enron may have gone from giant to bankrupt in the space of a month, more than five years on, the ramifications are still being felt. New revelations continue to emerge, and the company’s old website remains up to offer advice to creditors, ex-employees and ruined investors alike. To manage to provide a coherent perspective over the whole sorry, ongoing affair without any of the petty political point-scoring against the Bush administration that lesser filmmakers may have attempted is an incredible achievement. To manage to make a film about complex business arrangements not just fascinating for the layman but also incredibly emotionally engaging is nothing short of amazing. It may sound unlikely, but this is every bit as entertaining as the big budget blockbusters that are Hollywood’s main export. Go see.