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Bruce Newman's Sundance Journal





Saturday, January 29, 2005

The Smartest Guys In the Screening Room

At last year's Cannes Film Festival, "Fahrenheit 9/11" won both a prolonged standing ovation and the Palme d'Or for director Michael Moore, and when the Bush-bashing documentary went on to make more than $100 million, it seemed likely to encourage imitators. But the two filmmakers with the most incendiary doc just prior to "Fahrenheit"--director Eugene Jarecki and writer Alex Gibney, who collaborated in 2002 on the prosecutorial "The Trials of Henry Kissinger"--have separately brought two of the strongest films to the documentary competition at Sundance.

Gibney's "Enron: The Smartest Guys In the Room" and Jarecki's "Why We Fight" take a look at two highly politicized subjects--Enron, with its controversial connections to the Bush administration, and military contractors (such as Halliburton, with its controversial connections to the Bush administration)--and wisely avoid the temptation to try to ram a point of view down the audience's throat. (For obvious reasons, "Inside Deep Throat" is less, um, inhibited in this regard.)


Alex Gibney, director of "Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room." Magnolia Pictures Posted by Hello

"It would have been a kind of cheap but satisfying hit to make a screed about how horrible these people were," Gibney told me, "and not try to reckon with what was going on in their heads."

From what Gibney has laid out, what was going on in the heads of Enron CEO Jeffrey Skilling and chairman Ken Lay was plenty interesting enough. "This is more like a heist film, where we're riding in the getaway car," Gibney says. "I was so interested in the characters, and the degree to which they invented this fictional company. They were, in effect, running a film studio."

America's seventh-largest corporation at the time of its fall, Enron was admired for its success, which was apparently about the only thing the company ever produced. "They were very conscious about their image, and spent a lot of time manufacturing the look of a very potent company," Gibney says. "That's why it was like a film set. If you looked behind the flats, there was nothing there.

Gibney's film wonderfully captures the Wild West mentality of Enron's energy traders, who gamed the de-regulated markets to create rolling blackouts in California and vast wealth at the company's Houston headquarters. It's a hard-hitting documentary, but never resorts to Moore's ballpeen hammer to make its point. Gibney was even discreet enough not to mention that not so very long ago, Enron was an official corporate sponsor of the Sundance Film Festival. "They wanted to get Utah to de-regulate its energy markets," he says.



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