We're in filmmakers' debt for timely 'I.O.U.S.A.'

Movie focuses on two men who spread the word across America about the country being on the brink of financial collapse ***

November 07, 2008|By Michael Sragow | Michael Sragow,michael.sragow@baltsun.com

Documentary-maker Patrick Creadon and his producer wife, Christine O'Malley, use all the graphic dexterity and wit they mustered to make crossword puzzles enthralling in Wordplay to scare audiences into fiscal responsibility in I.O.U.S.A. Like the Indiana Jones series, this improbably sprightly if doom-laden analysis of our fiscal woes, written by Creadon, O'Malley and Addison Wiggin, revives old-fashioned visual tools like maps filled with moving arrows to rouse viewers out of ignorance and complacency.

The movie boasts two central heroes in former U.S. Comptroller General Dave Walker and Bob Bixby, executive director of the Concord Coalition. Creadon rightly considers them fiscal Paul Reveres, spreading the word across America that our negligent piling up of debt has put us on the brink of financial collapse. Yet Walker and Bixby don't unify the film with their personal stories the way Al Gore did with his An Inconvenient Trut h. What Creadon seizes on is their lucid dissection of economic crises.

Although the movie is unabashedly alarming, it's also intelligent fun. The filmmakers turn a penny into a pie chart of Walker's four types of risky deficits - federal, savings, trade and leadership - then turn the penny into a guide that takes us through the highs and lows of governmental deficits. Following that coin across a timeline becomes as hypnotic as tracing the bouncing ball across song lyrics in the musical shorts you see on Turner Classic Movies. Then the depiction of our current volcano of debt brings on vertigo.

Creadon and company are gimmick-masters of the highest sort. They'll do anything, including animating a Warren Buffett parable about "Squanderville" and "Thriftville," to bring home the basics as well as the nuances of financial logic. They include a clip from their old Wordplay pal Jon Stewart that displays his shrewdness and intelligence: He quizzes former Fed Chairman Alan Greenspan over setting policies that encouraged Americans to play stocks rather than stash away savings. The comedy-clip highlight is a Saturday Night Live sketch featuring Steve Martin and Amy Poehler as clueless American homeowners and Chris Parnell as the advice peddler selling the hard-to-comprehend wisdom that they should buy only what they can afford.

Since the topic is so dire, it's not surprising that Creadon himself adopts late-night comedy techniques, conducting spontaneous in-the-street interviews with American men and women to gauge exactly how little we know, as a citizenry, about deficits and how to service and survive them. By the end, there's nothing left to laugh about.

The film's political strength lies in its bipartisanship. It implicitly agrees with George H.W. Bush's primary-campaign assessment of Reagan's economic plan as "voodoo economics" and praises the Clinton administration for realizing that "tax cuts are too expensive." But it never loses its focus on our shared moral imperative: to trail-blaze a road to fiscal health. Its theme song is, of course, "Cruel to be Kind."


(Roadside) A documentary by Patrick Creadon. Rated PG for some thematic elements. Time 90 minutes.

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