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In 'I.O.U.S.A.,' A Deficit of Originality

By Philip Kennicott
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, August 22, 2008

"I.O.U.S.A.," an impassioned and slickly made film about the perils of the national debt, is another entry in the growing collection of "Wake up, America!" documentaries. The ice caps are melting. The nation's health-care system is in shambles. The Iraq war is rending us asunder. We are drowning in a great Noah's Flood of red ink, consumer debt and unfunded government obligations. Wake up, America!

If you set aside the relatively painless 85 minutes it takes for director Patrick Creadon's rudimentary economics lesson, you will very likely leave feeling a little guilty, like passing a homeless guy without putting some change in his coffee cup. It's not just that there are too many celluloid claims on our limited capacity to fret about the future. Creadon's film just isn't, well, very interesting.

It's hard to fess up to such shameless superficiality, given the importance of the subject and Creadon's carefully marshaled argument about why the nation is going down the tubes if we don't do something about our huge budget shortfalls and growing trade deficit. But there is a difference between the importance of a film's subject and the quality of a film's execution. And the execution is lacking.

Creadon (who directed the 2006 crossword puzzle documentary "Wordplay") uses some all-too-common documentary gimmicks, tricks that are in favor because documentary makers have come to dread static films loaded with talking heads. "I.O.U.S.A." is built around a road trip, starring Robert Bixby, director of the Concord Coalition, and David Walker, the U.S. comptroller general (who has resigned to be a more politically active exponent of paying down the debt). They tour the country, teaching and testifying and generally playing Cassandra (in a suit and tie) in what they call the "Fiscal Wake Up Tour." They are earnest, well informed and passionately devoted to a good cause, but neither of them is particularly compelling on camera.

Creadon also loads his film with polished graphics that demonstrate (among other things) how the debt, as a percentage of the gross national product, has waxed and waned, and is now waxing in a huge way and with no end in sight. And then there are the obligatory "man on the street" interviews that reveal how desperately stupid most Americans are about important policy matters, plus a short sequence that lampoons the superficiality of local news media. Both are standard features of the "Wake up, America" genera.

A few carefully chosen talking heads -- Warren Buffett and Paul O'Neill, the former Treasury secretary who makes no secret about getting the ax from the Bush administration, with which he had policy differences ("I've never been fired before," he says) -- underscore the basic themes of the film. Their dire warnings will chill you to the bone.

"It could swamp our ship of state," intones the narrator as the film builds to its conclusion. The grim possibilities are terrifying: increasing amounts of our productivity sucked up to service ballooning debt; promises to the elderly and sick in jeopardy, with even prohibitive tax hikes inadequate to dig us out; and greater ownership of American debt and property by foreign powers, including China, which will have leverage over U.S. policy. It is, quite possibly, the end of the empire.

So why didn't Creadon make a better film? In part because the standard devices he relies on are just about played out. The road trip, as a structural framework, is good for getting colorful images of America, and it lets the filmmakers cross blue-and-red-state divides, giving the documentary a Whitmanesque jumble of Americana. This helps insulate the filmmaker against charges of partisanship, and it short-circuits the knee-jerk response that dark and pessimistic films about America are by definition anti-American.

To some degree, the little jabs at American ignorance and our short attention may help draw ordinary people into the film -- see, you're not the only one who doesn't know the national debt is $9.6 trillion and climbing. But they also feel tired. Yes, we know we're stupid.

Which is all to say that despite its good intentions, "I.O.U.S.A." reveals just how much the popular documentary is beginning to ossify into a standard rhetorical form, with repetitive tropes and gestures. Given the seriousness of the issues that documentarians are championing, perhaps it's time for the next thing. Whatever that is. It may be a pendulum swing back to the lean-and-mean documentary based on interviews, done with a new, minimalist slickness.

It may also mean that the documentary is, at the moment, the wrong form for breaking through the noise. For all of its effort to teach the nuts and bolts of economic policy, "I.O.U.S.A." is basically diagnosing a social problem. Not surprisingly, the most entertaining moment in the film is a clip borrowed from "Saturday Night Live," in which Chris Parnell teaches Steve Martin and Amy Poehler about his unique, revolutionary get-out-of-debt program: "Don't Buy Stuff You Cannot Afford." There it is, in a nutshell, the childlike American belief that tomorrow is another day, and somehow we can pay for it all later.

If it's a social problem, then perhaps we need a more social form to lay it out in its complexity. The novel has done yeoman work in this line for two centuries, revealing poverty and corruption and cruelty and superficiality at all levels of society. Perhaps, in the tradition of Charles Dickens and Upton Sinclair, narrative is the solution once again, a better way to show how deeply our wastrel ways go into the national psyche. And then our documentary makers could breathe a little easier, and go back to making films that put complexity, density and argument ahead of popularizing gimmicks.

I.O.U.S.A. (85 minutes, at Regal Fairfax Towne Center and Regal Ballston Common) is rated PG for some adult themes.

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