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oscar run xi: enron: the smartest guys in the room (alex gibney, 2005)

Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room is a fine documentary that lays out the fucked-up shenanigans of Enron in a clear fashion. As a Californian, I found the sections on Enron's manipulation of the power markets to be especially lucid.

There are two problems with the movie, both of which I think grow out of what Andrew O'Hehir, in an ambivalent review in Salon, called "epistemological bogosity." O'Hehir's point is that documentary filmmakers have to balance the need for informative accuracy with the desire to reach a large audience that wants entertainment along with its information. This leads, in Enron, to a rather glib use of popular songs to underscore particular points.

More of a problem is the way in which the political ramifications of the story are at times pushed to the side. Roger Ebert wrote that "This is not a political documentary. It is a crime story," and others have noted the effective way the filmmakers draw out the personal tragedies in the tale. But Ebert is only partly correct ... yes, it's a crime story, but it is also, or should be, a political documentary. The story of Enron is not merely one of criminals, but of fundamental philosophies behind the free-market capitalism of our times. The filmmakers know this, but too often they go for easier, pop-psych explanations. At one point, they draw a parallel between the actions of Enron workers and the test subjects in Stanley Milgram's famous "torture" experiments, the idea being that people will do terrible things if they believe an authoritative figure is leading them. This might explain some of the actions of some of the lesser workers at Enron, but the overt greed of higher-ups is hardly connected to Milgram.

I've spent more time complaining than I have in praising the movie, which is unfair ... I found it illuminating. It's a helluva lot better than March of the Penguins.