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There’s a reason that the issue of our country’s growing national debt, which currently stands at about $9.5 trillion (that’s $31,000 per American household), is difficult for many people to wrap their heads around. Most Americans can’t even balance their own checkbooks or figure out how to pay down their credit-card debt. The complex nature of the national budget, trade and savings deficits—and with money and the economy in general—is such that a documentary about these topics will be an inherent tough sell. The press notes for Patrick Creadon’s new doc, I.O.U.S.A., poses the question: “Can a movie turn the ins and outs of debt and deficits into something dynamic, fun and even inspirational?” The answer is no, no and—in this case—definitely not.

It’s difficult to compete with films like Fahrenheit 911 and An Inconvenient Truth but that doesn’t mean I.O.U.S.A., which follows former U.S. Comptroller General Dave Walker and Concord Coalition executive director Bob Bixby in their quest to educate Americans on the importance of fiscal discipline, doesn’t try. (In illustration of the interest such an “unsexy” topic generates, one local news broadcast opted not to cover the duo’s Fiscal Wake Up Tour in favor of a thief who swallowed a diamond ring.) There are tons of fancy timelines and charts, one of which paints a forecast for the U.S. economy that recalls the more terrifying moments of Al Gore’s climate-change doc. Curiously, it’s followed by an interview with Republican senator Judd Gregg of New Hampshire, a supporter of legislation to address global warming, who declares: “The only issue that’s more severe than [the national debt] would be the idea that an Islamic fundamentalist would get his or her hands on a nuclear weapon and use it against us.”

The national debt might not be as scary-entertaining as the prospect of climate change, but it’s certainly a dire situation. The U.S. has historically always found ways to pay down its debt quickly, even after the country was in hock following its founding, the Civil War and the supply-side economics of the trickle-down Reagan era. In the mid ‘90s Bill Clinton balanced the budget and announced that “we are on course for budget surpluses for the next 25 years.” That is, unless the Bush Administration had anything to say about it. The mounting debt of the last eight years is so potentially catastrophic that even our foreign policy decisions are at the mercy of our “bankers,” which include our oil exporters and burgeoning superpowers like China.

I.O.U.S.A. is surprisingly nonpartisan, blaming both sides for living beyond our means. But as one interviewee states, the truth isn’t liberal or conservative, and the reality of how the Bush administration has resurrected and compounded our nation’s biggest bad habit is inescapable. The fall of the Roman Empire required two essential components: an overextended military abroad and fiscal irresponsibility at home. That might not sound quite as frightening as rising sea levels and wars over natural resources, but it’s still pretty damn scary. It’s too bad Creadon breezes through potential solutions to the problem and ends his film with what basically amounts to a Rock the Vote ad.

DVD | Book
Roadside Attractions
90 min
Patrick Creadon
Patrick Creadon, Christine O'Malley, Addison Wiggin