CATEGORIES Documentary, Independent, New Releases, Magnolia, Critical Thought, Cinematical Indie, Movie News, New Releases, CinematicalBy now it seems obvious that the current-events documentary is more than just a benign industrial trend; when done right (and when done by the right, usually white male filmmaker), it's become the American Left's most potent weapon of activism.
But "most potent" is relative; the gold-standard bearer in this arena is, of course, Fahrenheit 9/11, a work of low-blow agit-art that made a huge media splash, but failed to have any real impact on the election it was cobbled together to influence. Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room is destined to become this year's version of that docu-phenomenon; whether or not it'll ultimately leave as anti-climactic of a mark is still uncertain. But Alex Gibney's film has an elegance to it that Michael Moore's does not. There's simply something to be said for a filmmaker who scores a montage on Kenneth Lay's childhood to Billie Holliday's "God Bless the Child", and also takes time out of indicting various Bushes to build an analogy around the Milgram Experiment, which, very much like Enron used electricity to test the limits of human decency. The most impressive aspect of Enron is not necessarily all that Gibney accomplishes within the film's boundaries - it's that, in doing so, he doesn't even seem to be breaking a sweat.
Composed of news footage, shocking home video, extraordinarily well-composed b-roll and a few puzzling reenactments, Enron flows so well that you almost forget you're watching a documentary about criminal accountancy - and that makes it hard, at times, to confront its various arguments. I don't think I would *really* understand mark-to -market accounting, the method implemented by Jeff Skilling to inflate the value of Enron's stock, unless it was explained to me at a first-grade level; the entire business of broadband trading also flew over my head. But Enron works on a plane where the little details of what the execs did wrong doesn't really matter - there's so much circumstantial evidence on display that even if you cut out the actual criminal activities entirely, you'd still have a pretty good idea that Enron was run by a band of very bad characters.
The soundtrack certainly helps: Peter Coyote's voice-of-god narration is perfectly dry, as if influenced by Ron Howard's voice-over-as-subliminal-commentary on Arrested Development, and the music couldn't have been better chosen for ironic potential - as soon as you hear the early strains of Judy Garland or Marilyn Manson, you have a pretty good idea of what kind of joke the filmmakers are trying to make.
Enron at times feels a little pornographic (or at the very least, unnecessarily explicit); because we've already seen the money shot, various narrative disclosures have to be made spectacular in order to have any impact. And so Gray Davis' explanation of how he was forced to surrender his gubernatorial position to Conan the Barbarian is juxtaposed with excerpts from the infamous Enron Tapes, in which cocky young electricity traders share salacious stories of how they "fuck" California by selling the state back its own power at exorbitant rates. Davis, who has by now found some kind of happiness in martyrdom, is far too happy to relate the intimate details of what he clearly perceives as his professional rape. It's not the only shocking moment of Enron, but it is the one point in the film that feels exploitative.