I.O.U.S.A.: A great date movie if you’re dating Alan Greenspan

A documentary about the national debt by Patrick Creadon

Understanding the national debt is easy. Explaining it is hard. Doing something about it is even harder. And producing a film about it that will warm theater seats is darn near impossible. (And focusing on it in political convention speeches or on the campaign stump allows one to hear crickets chirping.)

The understanding part is this simple: If you spend more than your income, you go into debt.

The explaining part is a little more tricky: This involves budget deficits, trade deficits, monetary policy, tax rates, Medicare, Social Security, inflation, recession, stagflation, Wall Street and savings accounts that all work together to create a dynamic fiscal ebb-and-flow.

But I.O.U.S.A. gives it a go. It’s a Herculean problem (the debt) and a Herculean task (the movie). Since the film does a good job of breaking down this issue using charts and graphs, it’s instructive to review the film in the same manner.

As one can see in Fig. 1, this film has many things in common with typical documentaries. The bottom — or “x” axis — lists the various techniques usually found in documentaries regardless of the subject matter.

Those techniques include:

*Talking Heads (interviews with egg-headed experts; see, e.g., 60 Minutes);

*Nifty Graphics (cool color charts, graphs, documents and excerpts from newspapers; see, e.g., An Inconvenient Truth);

*Man on the Street Interviews (side-splittingly hilarious responses to questions from average befuddled Joes and Janes; see, e.g., any Michael Moore documentary);

*Archival Footage (grainy black-and-white pictures or film clips of historic people and events; see, e.g., any Ken Burns documentary);

*Re-enactments (dramatic events staged by the filmmaker using actors and sets; see, e.g., any Errol Morris documentary — especially Standard Operating Procedure);

*Cartoons (this could be considered a subset of Nifty Graphics, but since they are so much fun, they are a separate category; see, e.g., the South Park animation in Michael Moore’s Sicko or the Futurama clip about global warming in An Inconvenient Truth);

*Pop Culture References (Paris Hilton, Brittney Spears, Jon Stewart, Stephen Colbert, you get the idea; see, e.g., any documentary), and;

*Cute Critters (how about some penguins?).

Along the left side or “y” axis is the relative number of times the technique in the “x” appears.

As one can see by the red line, the typical documentary favors the powerfully exciting Talking Heads and Archival Footage elements (newer documentaries tend to favor Cute Critters, Cartoons, Man on the Street Interviews, Pop Culture References, and Re-enactments, ‘cause, you know, they are trying to make money).

The green line represents the sorts of things that the public likes to see in a documentary or else they will stay away in droves (you guessed it: Cute Critters, Nifty Graphics, Man on the Street Interviews, Re-enactments, Cartoons, and Pop Culture References). The purple dot (which represents the documentary films about democracy for the Democratic National Convention’s Cinemocracy project) on the 100 line for the category Man on the Street Interviews shows that when average people are given a camcorder and told to make a five minute film about what democracy means, they just end up filming their friends talking.

The blue line represents I.O.U.S.A. As Fig. 1 shows, this film charts a path all its own. Although it tracks some of the typical documentary techniques (Talking Heads, Nifty Graphics, Cartoons and Pop Culture References), it shies away from the entertaining elements (I guess crippling national debt that subjects this nation to threats greater than terrorism just isn’t all that funny; and besides what kind of Cute Critter would the national debt look like?). And that can bode ill for this film’s box office. (Will the film itself go into debt?)

Another reason to worry (about the success of this film and the national debt) may be explained by Fig. 2. This pie chart roughly represents the reaction of most Americans to the vexing issue of what to do about the national debt. Once the issue is explained — and this film does a great job of touching on the general areas of our crushing deficits (budget, savings, balance of payments, leadership, monetary policy) that create the debt — the public is presented with a scant few options. Those options are (1) raising taxes (yeah, right!), (2) cutting spending (what, you want to cut my benefit or program?!), (3) do nothing (that pesky debt will solve itself, you’ll see), (4) something else (if we can put a man on the moon, maybe that cute Harry Potter can wave his magic wand and come up with something that does not involve raising taxes, cutting spending or doing nothing), or (5) don’t know (there’s always a percentage of people who respond this way).

As one can see from the percentages of this figure: We are doomed! (Pac-Man is chomping away at our fiscal soundness!) Raise taxes and cut spending? Even if you found the 0.1 percent who would support raising taxes (they might be living in fallout shelters waiting for the return of George Bush I), they would oppose the 1 percent that would possibly stomach cutting spending (these 1 percent budget cutters might be found in primeval forests where they live off the land, home school their kids, lick their wounds, use tree branches for shelter and hire Ewoks as their police force). What? Us sacrifice? Pshaw!

It makes one wonder whether this documentary will have any effect on this issue. Sure it’s great to explain the problem and feel all smugly high-and-mighty that you (and the three others in the theater) went and saw a documentary about an issue as gravely serious as the federal debt. Pat yourself on the back (that you went into debt by buying a ticket). But will we see any tangible results?

That could be answered by Fig. 3. This graph depicts what I call “the vicious circle of political documentaries.” Roughly, this theory suggests that documentaries — political ones in particular — tend to (1) get our dander up but fail to affect change (see, e.g., Michael Moore’s Fahrenheit 9/11 (Bush was still re-elected!)), (2) go to great lengths to explain the problem, then rush through solutions, if any (see, e.g., An Inconvenient Truth), and (3) result in more documentaries about various aspects of the same subject — especially if the film makes more than it sells in popcorn (see, e.g., penguins, global warming, the Bush administration, the output of Ken Burns).

The jury is still out on whether this documentary will produce, for example, a flood of films about the role of Federal Reserve or the interest rate on derivatives or the proper way to display actuarial tables. My money’s on “maybe.”

How much money? Well, here, just use my credit card.

Doug Young is, indeed, The Statesman’s outstanding film critic. He also works for Congressman Mark Udall as an environmental policy advisor.