For the Netflix list: 'Smartest Guys in the Room'

In case you missed this the first time around (as I did), highly recommended: Alex Gibney's 2005 documentary on Enron, The Smartest Guys in the Room. Apart from its original, intrinsic interest in telling the sordid tale of Skilling, Fastow, Lay, et al, the film has surprising new resonance now.

On the one hand, the sums involved in this previous-world-record-scandal now seem quaintly small. Enron was a $60 billion (or whatever) corporation that went bust. Ooooooohh, say it isn't so!  That is practically a rounding-error financial disaster now, except when achieved by a single person like Madoff.

But the fundamental dynamics of the fraud are very, very similar to what we've heard about from a dozen other institutions in the past year. And -- the part that really got my attention -- the second-tier villains in the Enron story, the enablers and blind-eye-turners for the active fraud Enron had underway, included many that have emerged in full villainy since then, Merrill Lynch, Citibank, and boosterish business journalists prominent among them. Also: if you happened to be living in California during the Enron-intensifiedinduced rolling blackouts of nearly a decade ago, as I was, you will find yourself wishing that mob justice could have been applied to the Enron team. You'll also wonder why a guy named Lou Pai is not as notorious as the rest of them -- and how he escaped with his fortune mainly intact (and accompanied by what the film refers to as his "stripper girlfriend").

Worth seeing a first time -- or a second or third, with the new eyes of 2009. Alex Gibney, the director, is known to the world as last-year's Oscar winner for  Taxi to the Dark Side and within the Atlantic as the brother of our colleague James Gibney.

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James Fallows is a national correspondent for The Atlantic and has written for the magazine since the late 1970s. He has reported extensively from outside the United States and once worked as President Carter's chief speechwriter. His latest book is China Airborne. More

James Fallows is based in Washington as a national correspondent for The Atlantic. He has worked for the magazine for nearly 30 years and in that time has also lived in Seattle, Berkeley, Austin, Tokyo, Kuala Lumpur, Shanghai, and Beijing. He was raised in Redlands, California, received his undergraduate degree in American history and literature from Harvard, and received a graduate degree in economics from Oxford as a Rhodes scholar. In addition to working for The Atlantic, he has spent two years as chief White House speechwriter for Jimmy Carter, two years as the editor of US News & World Report, and six months as a program designer at Microsoft. He is an instrument-rated private pilot. He is also now the chair in U.S. media at the U.S. Studies Centre at the University of Sydney, in Australia.

Fallows has been a finalist for the National Magazine Award five times and has won once; he has also won the American Book Award for nonfiction and a N.Y. Emmy award for the documentary series Doing Business in China. He was the founding chairman of the New America Foundation. His recent books Blind Into Baghdad (2006) and Postcards From Tomorrow Square (2009) are based on his writings for The Atlantic. His latest book is China Airborne. He is married to Deborah Fallows, author of the recent book Dreaming in Chinese. They have two married sons.

Fallows welcomes and frequently quotes from reader mail sent via the "Email" button below. Unless you specify otherwise, we consider any incoming mail available for possible quotation -- but not with the sender's real name unless you explicitly state that it may be used. If you are wondering why Fallows does not use a "Comments" field below his posts, please see previous explanations here and here.


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