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Operation Condor

Jackie Chan meets Indiana Jones —Andrea Birgers (review...)

Chan borrows from Raiders

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I.O.U.S.A.is an activist documentary about America’s debt.

The movie feels like the side-project to a series of speeches given in Des Moines by a pair of economists. Sounds pretty boring, and as cinema and as entertainment, it is. If it weren’t for the slick, nifty, and easy-to-understand charts and graphs, the film would be much drier than it is.

No Excuse

We can hardly justify our debt with our times, says I.O.U.S.A.
We can hardly justify our debt with our times, says I.O.U.S.A.

That’s not to say the subject isn’t important, and even interesting. It is.

The central thesis is that America’s debt has never been as high as it is right now. (I say “debt” but the film actually breaks it down into four more concrete ideas: government debt, government deficit, personal savings, and trade imbalance.) The only times America’s debt has been nearly as bad were the great depression and World War II. Since our current financial downturn is only about market bubbles and credit crunches, we can hardly justify our debt with our times. We’re doing something wrong, and we don’t even have a good excuse.

The economists who give the speeches and carry the documentary are passionate about their work, and that makes them easy to like on-screen, in a wonky sort of way. As a nerd with a day job in the financial data industry, I got what they were saying and its importance to America and Americans.

Seller’s Market

But rather than trying to inform us, I.O.U.S.A.wants us to get active and do something.

Reducing debt may be a worthy cause, but I don’t like movies to do my thinking for me. I.O.U.S.A.practically begs critics and audiences to declaim it “essential viewing for every American.” It begs, rather than demands or convinces. If the movie hadn’t been so activist — if it had been primarily informative, I probably would have liked it better and recommended it more highly.

Consider An Inconvenient Truth, in which Al Gore carefully makes the case against man-made climate change. He makes it graphically, visually, and thoroughly. It ends with steps you can take, but it doesn’t seem like it’s nagging you or hustling you. If Gore’s film is “boring” but thorough, I.O.U.S.A.is shrill and hyperbolic.

I.O.U.S.A.ends, like a fireworks show, with the biggest blast of graphics and charts, each giving the audience a reason to do something positive. But since I have always been a good saver, the section on personal finance didn’t connect with me. The suggestions on government policy would be important for my Congressional representatives to see, but I am not going to write them just because I saw a documentary. Short of giving up my movie time to become an activist, I.O.U.S.A.doesn’t actually tell me much I can do.

And since I end up rejecting the movie’s recurring plea to do something, its informational content gets thrown out like the baby with the bathwater.