There are so many ways that the filmmakers could have gone wrong. It could have been a dull parade of talking heads, or an airy exploration of the “culture of greed” with minimal specifics about Enron. It could have been a thin, unsatisfying hit piece like Bush’s Brain. It could have been incomprehensible to viewers without an accounting degree.
Instead, it’s the cinematic equivalent of a well-structured business book like Liar’s Poker. A film which spends about as much time talking about the Dabhol power plant in India as it does talking about strippers2 is taking its subject matter seriously. There’s an admirable depth and scope; I had the feeling that the filmmakers knew a lot more than they could fit in. It does an especially good job at explaining some of the big issues: how the institutions which should have blown the whistle (banks, lawyers, accountants, and analysts) had perverse incentives to keep Enron going, and how the pressure to beat expectations led to escalating fraud every quarter. The section on California is particularly infuriating to folks who remember how concerns about market manipulation were treated with blithe condescension.
Like many historical documentaries, the film tells the story of events that didn’t happen on camera, so it succeeds or fails on the strength of its editors. Luckily, the editing does a skillful job of mixing “real” footage (largely Congressional hearings), stock footage with voiceovers, and interview clips. The quick pacing and chapter-like structure help make the movie feel shorter than it is. It looks great, like someone took their time.
I have a few quibbles. It’s a touch light on the details of Enron’s financial chicanery. (I’d really like to know what “Death Star” meant, for example.) At points when I disagreed with the angle that the filmmakers were taking, I realized that there wasn’t much effort spent representing opposing views3.
But it’s an admirable, intelligent documentary about complex subject that captures many of the pleasures of a good nonfiction book. Well worth the time.
1 Full disclosure, as it were: I worked as an analyst at Enron in the London office for about six months in 2001, almost to the end. I’m not bitter; I didn’t get burned on stock and learned quite a lot.
2 Albeit with some pretty gratuitous visuals.
3 For example, some people had most or all of their retirement accounts invested in Enron stock. That’s an important part of the story. It would also have been appropriate to show someone, anyone, pointing out that these people had made a horrible, foolish decision on their own. UPDATE: Atrios notes that Enron’s 401k matching contributions were paid in Enron stock, which I didn’t realize.