The Smartest Guys in The Room – A Movie Review

Mrs. Businesspundit and I decided to go see the Enron movie last night. I was surprised at the crowd in the theater. It wasn't full, but there were more people than I expected. I assumed that most of them were there because like us, they were either fascinated with the story or were business junkies. I was wrong. By the time the movie was over, I suspected that most of them were there because they were anti-capitalist Bush haters.

It was weird. The movie discussed the ties between the Bush family and Ken Lay, and pretty much every time Bush was on screen, people laughed out loud. And he really didn't say anything funny. Now, most of you know that I'm not a big fan of George W. Bush. I hated the steel tariffs, the farm bill, the prescription drug bill, his position on stem cell research… I could go on and on. But I seriously doubt he knew anything about the accounting tricks going on at Enron. There are two reasons I believe this. First of all, almost no one knew. They duped a lot of smart people who assumed that if Arthur Anderson had signed off on their strange use of mark to market, it must be ok. Secondly, people don't tell anyone, even their good friends, when they put up that kind of facade. The movie didn't really imply that Bush was in on the whole thing. It was more of a demonstration about how powerfully Enron was connected and how that aided them in pulling the wool over the eyes of so many people.

The other thing that aggravated me was the talk about deregulation. The movie showed several figures speaking positively about deregulated markets, and of course the movie crowd laughed. I can only assume they think that government should control markets. But here's the issue. The failure in the California market, as portrayed by the movie, was two fold. First of all, the market wasn't truly deregulated, but was semi-regulated under a complex set of rules that most people couldn't understand. Secondly, Enron straight out manipulated and defrauded the market. That's illegal. No one expects markets to work when people are deceitful and manipulative. Apparently, Enron traders would call power plants and have them shut down 30% of their capacity and tell them to say it was for maintenance reasons. The fall in supply would drive the price up, which made money for Enron.

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The final thing that I really didn't care for was that several people spoke negatively about "self-interest" and blamed it for Enron's problemlems. But the truth is that Enron executives were idiots and obviously didn't do what was in their best self-interest because now many are broke and in jail and the company is gone. That's not in anyone's self-interest. The problemlem is that they sacrificed the long-term for the short-term. That's just stupid.

It may seem that I didn't care for the movie, but it was really pretty good. I just don't like people slammming business in general because one group of executives in Texas built a bad corporate culture that enabled all this stuff to happen. I knew Jeff Skilling wasn't as bright as he thought when he told employees that people are only motivated by money. Anyone who has managed people can tell you that is wrong. People are motivated for all kinds of reasons, and money is just one of them.

The movie was really a documentary, which I didn't expect. I thought it was going to have a cast that acted out the story told by the book. It was really interesting, especially when various people are interviewed who all have their own theories on what caused the fall. For instance, Lay and Skilling tried hard to pin it all on Andy Fastow, but several other Enron employees pointed out that Enron's accouting firm, law firm, and various big name banks had all signed off on these complex transactions, fake profits, and strange partnerships. It wasn't a conspiracy, just a bunch of people who went along with something because they were afraid to say "the emporer has no clothes."

If you never really understood what Enron did wrong, the movie explains it all well. If you read the book, Mrs. Businesspundit says to tell you the movie was quite different.

I'd say you should definitely see it at some point, but wait until it comes out on video so you don't have to deal with the anti-business crowd at the theater.