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A ‘Cold Shower’ Film About Our National Debt

Fiscal responsibility might not seem like a sexy enough topic to compete with box office blockbusters on the big screen.

Just ask the Concord Coalition’s Robert Bixby, who has been touring the nation for three years sounding off on the fiscal challenges facing the country. News about the deficit, he says, is more fittingly described as a “cold shower” than a hot item.

“We come after the sexy message, to cool people off,” he explains in “I.O.U.S.A.,” a new documentary to be released nationwide in August.

But as politicians and deficit hawks decry the disastrous state of the nation’s finances, “I.O.U.S.A.” takes a stab at presenting an issue in a package that is palatable to the general public.

The numbers are mind-boggling — the current national debt of about $9 trillion skyrockets to about $53 trillion when you include future liabilities for entitlement programs such as Social Security and Medicare — and the historical and political factors weighing into the complex equation.

But “I.O.U.S.A.” weaves together the personal experiences of former Comptroller General David Walker and Bixby as they traverse the country on their “Fiscal Wake-up Tour,” as well as number-crunching graphics and interviews with economists, lawmakers and former presidential appointees to present the issue in layman’s terms.

Specifically, it draws upon a speech Walker has been giving that identifies four deficits that threaten the country’s future — the federal budget deficit, the savings deficit, the trade deficit and a deficit of strong leadership.

Breaking down an issue as complicated as the deficit into an easy-to-understand and entertaining film isn’t a new concept for the film’s director, Patrick Creadon, whose 2006 documentary, “Wordplay,” received rave reviews for making crossword puzzles cool.

“Our friends think we’re completely insane because we keep picking these topics that can’t possibly be an interesting film,” he said. “But that’s the fun of it.”

Creadon knew the film needed a human touch to attract a wide audience, and Bixby and Walker, whom he calls “the Abbott and Costello of fiscal responsibility,” shine in the role. It was a pleasant surprise for Creadon, who initially approached them for interviews because of they were also mentioned in the book “Empire of Debt” by Bill Bonner and Addison Wiggin, which was the impetus for the film.

“Right away, we realized that these were our stars,” Creadon said. “You can’t possibly tell the story A to Z in 90 minutes, but we think the film is a conversation-starter. It gets the ball rolling.”

Walker, who left the Government Accountability Office in March to head former Secretary of Commerce Peter G. Peterson’s namesake foundation focused on fiscal issues, became both the narrator and a strong backer of the film.

After the film failed to pick up a distributor at the Sundance Film Festival, the foundation invested about $2 million in acquiring the film and its distribution rights. It is now arranging a nationwide town-hall-style premiere of the final cut, followed by release in more than a dozen cities and screenings at the film festivals for the Democratic and Republican national conventions.

“The subject matter is directly in line with a number of issues that we’re concerned with,” Walker said of the foundation’s interest in the film. “Most people don’t want to read about [the debt] every day and unfortunately many Americans have their own debt problem. … Basically, our view was there is a need to state the facts and speak the truth to the American people about where we are.”

Creadon and Walker both stress that the film is committed to presenting the issue in a nonpartisan light and maintained that Creadon retained full creative license over the final cut after the foundation became involved.

Creadon said he has heard criticism from the far left and right that the film is biased in one direction or the other, but he points to the range of ideologies and backgrounds by experts he interviewed as a healthy balance.

“There are things in the film that not everyone in the film agrees with,” he said, noting that negative feedback included a Sundance attendee who called the film “arch-conservative propaganda” and a member of a prominent think tank on the right who said the film leaned too far left.

The film also includes satirical sketches from the “Colbert Report” and “Saturday Night Live” and snippets from man-on-the-street interviews highlighting widespread ignorance about the issue. Walker and others backing the film hope that interjecting the issue into the country’s collective pop culture-saturated psyche will be buzz-worthy enough to get the presidential candidates to address the deficit on the trail.

Lawmakers who viewed the film at a screening Thursday night echoed that hope.

“The real issue here is how do you get the presidential candidates to make this an issue today,” Sen. George Voinovich (R-Ohio) said after the screening. “I think unless this becomes an issue in the campaign and a very significant issue, we’re not going to get the leadership we need.”

House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) agreed, emphasizing the need to “keep all options on the table” to solve the problem. He said the film succeeds in addressing a fifth deficit as well — a nationwide knowledge deficit.

“The American people do not have a sense of the fiscal hole we have dug for ourselves,” he said.

The film closes with a short list of solutions focused on holding the politicians and the public accountable for national and personal debt and encouraging a bipartisan effort to bring more responsibility to the country’s financial policies. Most importantly, backers hope the film sparks more public discourse about the issue.

“There is blame to go around everywhere. It’s not just Washington, either,” Creadon said. “We have a very serious problem on our hands.”

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