Review: ‘I.O.U.S.A.’

Steve Jobs

"I.O.U.S.A." is an alternately amusing and alarming primer on America's off-the-charts fiscal irresponsibility.

With the same eye for snazzy visual aids and casual human eccentricity that informed his delightful crossword-puzzle docu “Wordplay,” helmer Patrick Creadon tackles a markedly grimmer story in “I.O.U.S.A.,” an alternately amusing and alarming primer on America’s off-the-charts fiscal irresponsibility. Meant to raise awareness of the skyrocketing national debt and the disaster it spells for future generations, this highly informative docu reps a heady mix of charts, graphs and talking heads, but its superb packaging and timely subject matter should give it a shot at theatrical exposure before it cashes in on homevid and broadcast slots.

Creadon’s film could just as easily have been titled “An Inconvenient Truth,” and indeed has a number of things in common with Al Gore’s cautionary global-warming doc: It’s essentially a glorified PowerPoint presentation, and it calls for a nonpartistan response to an issue — in this case, our “fiscal cancer” — with significantly further-reaching implications for the average American than the war on terror.

Trying to get the word out are U.S. Comptroller General David M. Walker and Concord Coalition exec director Robert Bixby, who both work to encourage government accountability. Together, they spearhead the Fiscal Wake-up Tour, traveling from city to city and urging locals to practice financial responsibility — especially in the wake of the federal debt, which is at $8.7 trillion and counting.

Explaining how we arrived at that staggering figure, “I.O.U.S.A.” zips over some 200 years of American history, making handy use of timelines, pie charts and other graphics (meticulously designed by Brian Oakes). The rise is attributed to a number of factors, including war spending, government programs, massive inflation, ill-advised tax cuts and the age-old tradition of US. presidents promising one thing and implementing another.

Inspired by the book “Empire of Debt” by William Bonner and Addison Wiggin (who exec produced and co-wrote the pic), Creadon breaks down America’s culture of spending rather than saving, a problem that occurs at both individual and national levels. Pic reserves much of its disdain for President Nixon and former Federal Reserve Board Chairman Alan Greenspan (who declined an interview) for their roles in upping inflation, particularly Nixon’s decision to abandon the gold standard and its crippling effect on the dollar.

Creadon also frames the U.S. in a world context, showing how our habits of borrowing from other nations and importing more than we export have amassed further debt. Pic’s most urgent, disquieting segment examines the threat of China’s growing prominence on the economic stage, as its massive U.S. treasury holdings could give it political leverage.

A stat-studded geekfest for accountants and economics majors, “I.O.U.S.A.” is so dizzyingly (and for novices, sometimes confusingly) packed with figures and facts related to the federal budget, the stock market, the GDP, Social Security, et al., that its human voices become all the more welcome. Former U.S. Secretary of the Treasury Paul O’Neill comes across as a principled critic of the current Bush administration, while Warren Buffett expounds on the virtues of thrift.

Good-humored, Tab-drinking Bixby provides unforced comic relief, while man-on-the-street interviews affectionately poke fun at how little Americans know about their money. Tech credits are polished.



An Agora Entertainment presentation, in association with O'Malley Creadon Prods. (International sales: Cinetic Media, New York.) Produced by Christine O'Malley, Sarah Gibson, Open Sky Entertainment. Executive producer, Addison Wiggin. Directed by Patrick Creadon. Written by Creadon, Christine O'Malley, Addison Wiggin, inspired by the book "Empire of Debt: The Rise of an Epic Financial Crisis" by William Bonner, Wiggin; story, Wiggin, Kate Incontrera.


Camera (color/B&W, HD), Creadon; editor, Doug Blush; music, Peter Golub; sound, Larry A. Ellis; graphic designer, Brian Oakes; associate producers, Theodore James, Incontrera. Reviewed at Sundance Film Festival (competing), Jan. 22, 2008. Running time: 87 MIN.


David M. Walker, Robert Bixby, Diane Rehm, Alice Rivlin, William Bonner, Harry Zeeve, Robert Rudin, Ron Paul, David Yepsen, Kay Harms, Warren Buffet, David Chia, James Arredy, Kent Conrad, Paul O'Neill. (English, Mandarin dialogue)

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