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Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room is a 2005 documentary film based on the best-selling 2003 book of the same name by Fortune reporters Bethany McLean and Peter Elkind, a study of one of the largest business scandals in American history. McLean and Elkind are credited as writers of the film alongside the director, Alex Gibney.

The film examines the 2001 collapse of the Enron Corporation, which resulted in criminal trials for several of the company's top executives; it also shows the involvement of the Enron traders in the California electricity crisis. The film features interviews with McLean and Elkind, as well as former Enron executives and employees, stock analysts, reporters and the former Governor of California Gray Davis.

The film won the Independent Spirit Award for Best Documentary Feature and was nominated for Best Documentary Feature at the 78th Academy Awards in 2006.


  • Bethany McLean -- Fortune reporter; co-author, The Smartest Guys in the Room
  • Peter Elkind -- co-author, The Smartest Guys in the Room
  • Sherron Watkins -- Enron whistleblower; co-author, Power Failure
  • Mimi Swartz -- co-author, Power Failure
  • Mike Muckleroy -- former Enron executive
  • Amanda Martin -- former Enron executive
  • Charles Wickman -- former Enron trader
  • John Beard -- former Enron accountant
  • Max Eberts -- former spokesman, Enron Energy Services
  • Bill Lerach -- attorney for Enron stockholders
  • Gray Davis -- former governor of Californiamarker


The film's narrative begins with a profile of Enron founder and president Kenneth Lay, the son of an impoverished Baptist minister who dreamed about being wealthy from a young age. After founding Enron in 1985, he forged extensive relationships with future presidents George H.W. Bush and George W. Bush. However, in 1987, Enron became embroiled in scandal when two oil traders began betting on the oil markets, resulting in consistent and suspiciously high profits for the company. Enron's C.E.O., Louis Borget, was also discovered to be diverting company money to personal offshore accounts. After auditors uncovered their schemes, Lay encouraged them to "keep making us millions", as they were turning profits for the otherwise fledgling Enron. However, the traders were fired after it was revealed that they gambled away Enron's reserves, nearly destroying the company. During the subsequent scandal, Lay denied having any knowledge of the schemes of Borget and the traders.

Lay hired new C.E.O. Jeffrey Skilling, a visionary who proposed that Enron trade energy like stocks and bonds. Skilling joined Enron on the condition that they utilize mark-to-market accounting, which allowed the company to book potential profits on certain projects immediately after the deals were signed, whether or not those projects turned out to be successful. Therefore, Enron could subjectively give the appearance of being a profitable company even if it wasn't. Inspired by one of his favorite books in Harvard Business Schoolmarker, The Selfish Gene by Richard Dawkins -- which he misinterpreted as suggesting that humanity survives by genetically passing on greedy and competitive traits -- Skilling established a Performance Review Committee at Enron that graded employees and annually fired the bottom fifteen percent, who were deemed unsuitable for the company's objectives. This created a highly competitive and brutal working environment at Enron. Skilling also changed his nerdy appearance, physically transforming himself into a bold, youthful face of Enron; he also took part in extreme sports.

At Enron, Skilling hired an inner circle of lieutenants that enforced his worldview inside the company, known as the "guys with spikes." They included J. Clifford Baxter, an intelligent but manic-depressive executive who was closer to Skilling than anybody else at the company; and Lou Pai, the C.E.O. of Enron Energy Services, who became a legendary figure within Enron for his ruthlessness, referred to by Skilling as "my ICBM." Pai was also notorious for using money from Enron shareholders to feed his obsessive habit of visiting strip clubs, and for allegedly inviting strippers into his office and onto the Enron trading floor. Pai abruptly resigned from EES with $250 million, soon after selling his stock and divorcing his wife to marry his girlfriend, a stripper. Despite the amount of money Pai had made, the divisions of Enron he formerly ran lost a total of $1 billion, a fact covered up by Enron. Pai later used his money to buy a large ranch in Coloradomarker, and became the second-largest landowner in the state.

With the impressive bull market brought on by the dot-com bubble of the late 1990s, Enron saw its stock skyrocket. As it became increasingly successful, Enron sought to beguile stock market analysts by meeting their projections. Enron executives also pushed up their stock prices and then cashed in their multi-million dollar options in a process called "pump and dump." Enron executives and employees became subsequently fixated with the company's stock prices. Enron also mounted a public relations campaign to portray itself as a highly profitable and stable company, even though Lay and Skilling were concealing the fact that many of the company's worldwide operations were performing poorly. One of the company's biggest failures was the construction of the Dabhol Power Plant in Indiamarker, which Enron built to defy the rival energy companies' fear of investing in India. However, Enron was forced to abandon the plant when it turned out that India couldn't afford the power it was producing, losing $1 billion. Enron also attempted to use broadband technology to deliver movies on demand, and also "trade weather" like a commodity; these ambitious initiatives, however, also failed.

By this time, stock market analysts were so mesmerized with Enron's profits that they began to uncritically believe everything the company told them. If an analyst proved to be skeptical about the company's profits and didn't give positive buy-recommendations, Andrew Fastow, Enron's chief financial officer, would pressure their employers to fire them. This was done to Jon Olson, an analyst for Merrill Lynch.


Upon release, Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room was met with strongly positive reviews. The film has a "Certified Fresh" rating of 97% on Rotten Tomatoes, based on 115 reviews; on Metacritic, it has a "Universal Acclaim" rating of 82%, based on 37 reviews. Ebert's co-host on the television program Ebert & Roeper, Chicago Tribune critic Richard Roeper, said that the documentary was "a brilliantly executed, brutally entertaining dissection of what one observer called the greatest corporate fraud in American history." A. O. Scott of The New York Times called the film a "sober, informative chronicle of the biggest business scandal of the decade is almost indecently entertaining."

An edited version of the film aired on the PBS documentary series Independent Lens. It was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature at the 78th Academy Awards in 2006, but lost to March of the Penguins.

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