By Bryan Newbury
January 21, 2008
The United States became a debtor nation in 1989. It was the first time the U.S. could be so classified since World War I. From that point to the present, the red ink has ebbed and flowed, but largely expanded to the point where some economists and social scientists are predicting the kind of flood we saw in New Orleans a few years back. Your family’s share of the national debt is a cozy $90,000 and growing. The Chinese are holding the note, and, as William Greider wrote in 2004, “[t]he poker game ends when one major player or another decides it has gotten the last dollar off the table and it’s time to go home. Creditor nations naturally have the upper hand, like any banker who can call the loan when he sees the borrower is hopelessly mired.” How did we get to this point?
Maxed Out doesn’t examine the foreign and economic policy big picture as much as it illustrates the situation through the credit problems of individual Americans. The parallels are unbearably odd, though the motivations and manipulations don’t correspond. As a debtor nation, we are seemingly going out of our way to leave ourselves vulnerable. As a matter of domestic policy, our leaders identify with the creditors (their American paymasters) leaving the working and middle class to the rapacious vultures of the banking and credit industry. Given this dichotomy, it would be nigh on impossible for the most skillful filmmaker to weave a coherent narrative connecting the debt crisis affecting Main Street Americans with the multi-trillion dollar deficit crunch of our government.
There is a lot of hay to be made on the psychology of debt, and Maxed Out hits those grace notes as well as can be expected of what is, in essence, a complicated and wonkish issue. While it would be welcome and useful to have a documentary focusing on the national debt for ninety minutes, the product would certainly be less entertaining than Mr. Scurlock’s (no relation, presumably, to Mr. Spurlock, though it seems the latter is producing two of every three documentary features these days) film, which dedicates a majority of screen time to the problems of average people.
“Average” people, as it happens, vary from college freshmen to real estate magnates to machinists. Our peculiar obsession with living on credit influences lifestyles from the proletarian depths of the Deep South to the $5.5 million McMansions in North Las Vegas. Current events have conspired to elevate Maxed Out into required viewing status. As the sub prime market teeters on the edge of collapse, causing real estate prices to plummet, it would behoove us to investigate the dominant lifestyle choices that make living above our means the norm. One salient point it drives home is that this apparently insane behavior is by design. From home refinancing to Providian cards, the greatest profit comes from default. In other words, the bank wants you to fall behind. For many, this revelation is counterintuitive, but if one needs it spelled out, this film does a more than serviceable job at this, as well as the detailed enumerations of just why our elected representatives do nothing about predatory lending practices.
While the film goes far to present its case in a scholarly manner – the commentary of Elizabeth Warren is particularly instructive – its strength is largely in juxtaposition. As Mike Hudson interviews a host of impoverished African-Americans in Mississippi, the point hardly needs to be made that little has changed since sharecropping. It is interesting, however, to note that this oppressive institution may well apply to the preponderance of American citizens. Sharecropping, after all, was slavery to debt. In other moments, we see an apt comparison (thanks to some creative use of stock footage) of lenders to drug dealers. (It should be said that the technique is becoming threadbare in American documentary filmmaking, but the reels of black and white footage in Maxed Out do well to avoid appearing worn. The opening sequence, which brings to mind the Eisenhower speech kicking off Why We Fight, is halfway to too cute by half, but is salvaged by the Eisenhower figure being played by the tandem of Jimmy Carter and Dan Rather.)
Through the course of Maxed Out, the viewer hopes for the narrative to tie together neatly. This is a natural expectation, but one that is beyond the subject. He is provided with adequate corollaries, such as the drug trafficking and sharecropping, but this is more a way of framing the usurious activities of our financial system than it is an explanation of how it all came to this.
Scurlock’s method makes for a successful film. The Wharton School of Business product proves adept at producing an enjoyable film when the risk of academic minutiae looms large. There are moments where a dash of detachment could have helped – one section of the film, while not criminally sentimental, could be confused for a prequel to The Bridge – yet, Scurlock proves that he is aware of a documentarian’s responsibility to inform while entertaining. If the details or the anecdotes begin to become oppressive, there’s always a bit of Louis C.K. to ease it. The comedian’s routine on the difference between the rich and poor in the banking world could be the most spot-on observation delivered.
It is often regrettable when a documentary appears to preach to the converted. If it is to do so, it may as well be scholarly and detailed rather than simply didactic. There might not be much new information in Maxed Out for deficit hawks or working class activists to chew on, but this is counterpoised by what could be a broad appeal. If the majority questioned the system, its vicissitudes or its inequities, we wouldn’t be in this mess. If you are one of the converted, this film just might get a community movie night out of you. Odds are good that the subject matter is of import to you and your neighbors. Possibly, the confluence of humor, style and information presented will urge you on to preaching it yourself.
Maxed Out: Hard Times, Easy Credit and the Era of Predatory Lenders
Written and Directed by James Scurlock
Color and Black & White, 90 minutes, 2006