I.O.U.S.A.: Byte-Sized

Thanks to a busy schedule, I didn’t get a chance to watch I.O.U.S.A. when it played in nearby Cary, NC, last month, but I finally did find some time today to sit down and watch an abbreviated, 30-minute version of the film, available on YouTube (among several other video sharing sites).  The video, like the documentary itself, I’m assuming, is a sobering reminder of how we got into this financial mess and carries with it a bracing call for new leadership ready to tackle the problems of our budget and trade deficit, not to mention our personl debts.  From what I can tell, most, if not all, of the content of the video was produced before the full measure of the financial crisis emerged in early October with the collapse–and subsequent bailout–of a number of banking and insurance giants, giving I.O.U.S.A. a slightly prophetic tone (or, perhaps, dated, I’m not sure which), although like many documentaries, such as The Corporation and Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room, it left me feeling somewhat powerless to change the country’s snowballing debt.

According to many of the reviews, the longer version of the film follows the narrative of a road-trip, following Bob Bixby and former U.S. Comptroller General David Walker as they try to raise public awareness of the increasing national debt and its implications for U.S. citizens.  This structure served Davis Guggenheim well in documenting Al Gore’s campaign against global warming in An Inconvenient Truth, so I’m not in a position to judge how it works here (although Philip Kennicott’s Washington Post review seems skeptical).  But the shorter version of the film generally dispenses with that structure, offering instead what amounts to an extended PowerPoint presentation on the history of the nation’s use of deficit spending, usually to finnce wars, and the ebb and flow of our debt as a percentage of the Gross Domestic Product.  The film throws out some incomprehensibly astronomical and alarming numbers, suggesting that within a few decades, we will find outrselves in the hole by $53 trillion dollars.

Intermixed with these dire warnings are interviews with economists and entrepreneurs, incluing Warren Buffet and Paul O’Neill, both of whom warn against the growing budget deficit.  At the same time, the shortened version of the film offers a relatively even-handed portrait of the spending and taxation practices that have placed us in this position.  The shorter version of the film offers few, if any, solutions for this crisis, which makes it a little frustrating to watch.  My immediate reaction is to fall into quiet resignation.  If I make the movie sound a bit like a bitter pill, it probably is.  There are some moments of levity: For one, a Saturay Night Live skit featuring Amy Poehler and Steve Martin being tutored by Chris Parnell on a revolutionary momeny-management program: “Don’t Buy Stuff You Can’t Afford.”  In other cases, they interview “average” Americans about their knowledge of the national debt, segments that I typically find somewhat annoying in that they often verge on mockery, while reinforcing the perception of Americans as oblivious to what’s happening financially.

Still, despite some ambivalence, I’m glad that I saw at least the 30-minute segment.  Given the film’s topicality and timeliness, I’m guessing that the shortened version may in fact serve as a relatively successful advertisement for the film.  The website does provide space where you can take action by sending an email to your members of Congress, but given the rapid evolution of this crisis, it might make sense to have something more fluid here.

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