The Best Documentaries: The Films Of Patrick Creadon

January 12, 2015

Bill Clinton doing a crossword puzzle in Wordplay

Patrick Creadon is an American documentary filmmaker, well-known for his movies on puzzles, education, and the economy. Born in 1967, Creadon started out as a child actor in Chicago, a career that included a leading role as Tom Sawyer in a made-for-TV film co-starring Anthony Michael Hall and Cynthia Nixon. By his early 20s, Creadon was shooting and editing for the acclaimed PBS series The 90s and eventually moved to L.A. where he earned a masters in cinematography from the AFI Conservatory. In 1997, his student film, Tendrils, was nominated for a student Academy Award. He worked as a cameraman and producer for several broadcast and cable networks before moving on to documentary features.


Wordplay movie poster

Creadon made a name for himself as a documentarian with his very first feature, Wordplay, in 2006. Wordplay is about crossword puzzles, and specifically, the New York Times crossword. The film is divided into roughly two parts. The first half of Wordplay focuses on master puzzlemaker Will Shortz, the editor of the Times crossword and long-time co-host of NPR Sunday Puzzle, as well as veteran crossword constructor Merl Reagle and several other puzzlemakers.

The film also interviews noted celebrities who have proclaimed their passion for puzzle solving, including Jon Stewart, Ken Burns, the Indigo Girls, Bob Dole, and President Bill Clinton. Other puzzlers who play in nationwide tournaments and have become renowned for their skills are featured as well; the film focuses on four in particular.

The second half of Wordplay concerns the annual American Crossword Puzzle Tournament, where the best of the best compete for a $4000 prize and the bragging rights of the country’s greatest crossword solver. The film was shot during the entirety of the 2005 ACPT and shows the mental as well as physical trials and tribulations of the competitors.

Wordplay was a critical and commercial success, grossing over three million dollars in domestic box-office, making it one of the most profitable documentaries of all time. It also managed nominations for Best Documentary from the National Board of Review, the Critics’ Choice Awards, and the Sundance Film Festival. A lighthearted romp and especially well received by audiences, the film even had enough cultural cache to inspire an episode of The Simpsons, guest starring Shortz and Reagle.


I.O.U.S.A. movie poster

Creadon followed Wordplay with a documentary about a decidedly more serious subject matter, I.O.U.S.A., although he managed to keep a tone that wasn’t too maudlin, despite its release on the heels of the recession. The film partially profiles former Comptroller General David M. Walker and follows Walker and Robert Bixby, director of the Concord Coalition, travelling cross-country to discuss the national debt and its potential for disaster. The trek, which journeyed from community to community, was dubbed the “Fiscal Wake-Up Tour.”

Bixby and Walker describe four aspects of the American economy: savings, budget, leadership, and the balance of payments. The documentary premiered at Sundance in 2008 before a unique event where it was simulcast across the country in 350 theaters and then followed by a live town hall meeting that included luminaries like Warren Buffett. Creadon hoped to get the very important yet relatively unknown issues about the national debt across to everyday citizens, and screened the film in college campuses and community centers throughout and after the 2008 presidential election. The film was even screened for members of Congress at the Library of Congress.

I.O.U.S.A. was well received, making Roger Ebert’s Top 5 Docs of 2008 as well as earning a Critics’ Choice Award nomination and Sundance nomination for the Grand Jury Prize. Creadon followed the film with a book, which expanded on the documentary and elaborated on the statistics and details featured on screen.

If You Build It

If You Build It movie poster

Creadon’s most recent documentary was 2013’s If You Build It, which followed a radical high school program in Windsor, North Carolina, part of the poorest county in the state. Chip Zullinger, the Superintendent of Bertie County, brought in two architects to design a curriculum for the high school. They created what became to be known as Studio H, and aimed to teach students how to design and build with their hands.

The students collaborated and built a farmers market pavilion for their community over the course of sixteen weeks. Better yet, it was designed by the students as well, a first for the nation. Zullinger aimed to give the students an education that enriched and empowered them as well.

Creadon’s film, whose title is derived from the famous Field of Dreams quote, screened at the Newport Beach Film Festival’s Art, Architecture and Design Series and was critically well received, continuing the filmmaker’s three-for-three hot streak of acclaimed documentaries.