This is the single most important film you will see this year. As a somewhat unsuccessful, but passionate, purveyor of all things lacking an absolute -- particularly in the area of judging the arts and particularly on an annual basis -- I can comfortably say it again, hell, I will profess it:
I.O.U.S.A. is the most crucial film, the "must see film", of this year.
This is not a brilliant work of cinema. It isn't daring in form, nor is it gleaming in its aesthetic. In fact, it has a few problems. The real power here is what the picture is about: Our national debt.
Don't be alarmed; this isn't some sterile run down of facts and figures. Rather, it is an extremely accessible and sensibly presented showcase of the problems facing our current fiscal policy. The filmmakers pull out the stops -- high-ranking interviews, animated graphs and charts, some blistering facts, and even a children's story by Warren Buffet. (And by the way, the film also received standing ovations at Sundance where it was nominated for a Grand Jury prize this year).
I walked into the theatre expecting a diatribe of sorts -- most likely of the (old school) conservative or even (Ron Paul) Libertarian color. What I got was neither. Now, the film is certainly opinionated and does take some broad strokes, which is somewhat necessary, as it does so in an attempt to keep the material easy to digest. That said, there isn't an agenda greater than simply using facts to educate the public on what is happening to our country's ability to stay financially solvent.
The film's central characters are Robert Bixby, the executive director of the Concord Coalition (a non-partisan public advocacy group that promotes fiscal responsibility) and former GAO Comptroller General David Walker. Both have used their respective positions to educate the American people on the dangers of our skyrocketing debt and its myriad causes. The filmmaker's choice to fixate on these two men was one that I have groaned over since my first viewing. They aren't charismatic, overtly interesting, or colorful characters. In fact, they seem more like over-involved high school teachers that are desperately trying to get their ADD-addled classrooms (the public at large) in order. After much thought it does become apparent that the two are the perfect protagonists for the picture (and cause) because of their passion and standing to discuss the subject matter with a nuanced authority that others would lack.
I think it is an interesting tactic on behalf of the filmmakers to restrict their opinions from running free when handing it to some of the film's targeted subjects beyond suggesting that we currently have a "leadership deficit". For example, yes, they do ask Mr. Alan Greenspan some hard(er) questions, but he isn't put to task as he should have been. Another example is the handling of our economy by our current administration. I suppose to keep to its spirit of non-partisanship, the film suggests, but never really points a heavy finger like I might have if I was given the reigns. I do find it somewhat funny (and somewhat frightening) that the mud slung toward our current fearless leaders seems to be done without the filmmakers even trying. After hearing a laundry list of problems espoused during the first three quarters of the picture, our boy George paints himself the uber-intellectual with such senseless drivel as the following answer to a reporter's questioning if we are heading into a recession: "You need to talk to economists. I think I got a B in Economy 101. I got an A however, in keeping taxes low" -- and apparently in keeping our debt high, our workers strapped for cash, our housing market collapsing, and our prominence on the international stage sinking ever lower.
I think that we as a people are just as much to blame and I.O.U.S.A. does not let us off the hook. It hits on the idea -- again and again -- that we are over-consumers and much of our financial woes can be blamed on ourselves. This is our country. The federal government is supposed to be an extension of us and we consistently vote for and support politicians whose policies run rampant over our lives -- both Republican AND Democrat. We don't know how to save, we overspend, we covet things that we really don't need, and worst of all, we have let our government govern us, rather than us govern it. As Greenspan candidly states in the film, "Human beings cannot survive unless they create provisions for the future". And as a country, we are lacking any semblance of this.
I know that understanding the nuances that sleep in bed with these issues are much more far-reaching and complex than an 85 minute film could even begin to touch on. That said, I do sincerely believe that the tragic way in which we have let our government run our finances has slowly become one of the core causes of so many of our troubles; whether looking at our creeping toward a form of quasi-fascist corporatism, our lessening of civil liberties, the poor quality of our food, or the malicious way in which we have felt forced to throw our clumsy weight around on the international stage.
As the film presents the government's own figures in regards to the amount of foreign debt owed, the irrational spending, and tax cuts we have experienced over recent years, it becomes apparent that either our republic's leaders are morbidly incompetent or are systematically working in tandem to help bring down the supposed greatest country in existence. The picture quotes former W. appointed Treasury Secretary Paul O'Neil (he was asked to resign and instead walked due to "differences") as claiming to have been told by Vice President Cheney that "We don't have to worry about defecits". And why not? The film also lays claim (again via the governments own figures) that by the middle of this century the Federal government's total budget will consist of Medicaid, Medicare, Social Security and paying interest on the national debt -- that's it. If that's not the product of a long-standing conspiracy to bankrupt this democracy, destroying it from within, then I don't know what is.
I think the most astounding figure presented illustrates our debt to our three leading lenders: China, Japan and the oil exporting Middle East. While there is something to be said of the idea that these economic relationships stabilize otherwise volatile opponents, it can also be pointed out that we are stabilizing them at the cost of being forced to act in ways and accept certain realities that would otherwise not have to exist under alternative arrangements.
So, while the thieves are enjoying their conventions and high-priced hobnobbing over the next few weeks, go out and put your dollars to use (before they turn into heating material) and support I.O.U.S.A. -- a film that stands to really help in the waking up process that I think (and hope) our country is heading toward.
I leave you with some (typically) prophetic words from one of our country's great political thinkers:
"There does not exist an engine so corruptive of the government and so demoralizing of the nation as a public debt. It will bring on us more ruin at home than all the enemies from abroad against whom this army and navy are to protect us." --Thomas Jefferson, 1821
I.O.U.S.A. opens in 10 cities on August 21 and will continue rolling out to additional markets thereafter. The film will also be playing during both the Democratic and Republican Conventions.