Both liberals and conservatives would probably agree that no principal is more fundamental to the American way of life than that guaranteed by the First Amendment: "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances." There are, of course, reasonable limits - maliciously creating panic by yelling "Fire!" in a crowded theater where there is no fire, for example, doesn't fall under the protection of Free Speech - but historically everyone has been entitled, if not always welcomed with open arms, to express dissent, whether it's you expressing your opinion, or the KKK marching down Main Street expressing theirs.
In recent years, though, the nation has become so divided, with extreme conservatives so intolerant of any opinion that doesn't exactly match their own, even ordinary Americans have taken extreme measures to snuff out dissent. Free Speech is all well and good, they might say, but not when the speech is controversial (it provides "aide and comfort to the enemy"), and certainly not when it's in my pious community. In this black-and-blue, red-state/blue-state country of ours, political xenophobia and isolationism now rule. Only views "representing the values and attitudes of the community" are permitted. Everyone else: shut up or move out.
In This Divided State (2005), it's neo-conservatives like Kay Anderson, a kind of right-wing Hank Kimball (played by Alvy Moore on Green Acres), who comes to believe that the very moral fiber of the community is at stake when filmmaker Michael Moore is invited to speak at nearby Utah Valley State College. Orem, Utah, a self-styled "Family City, U.S.A.," is Bush Country, where Republicans outnumber Democrats 12 to 1, and so inviting Moore for them is akin to inviting Ron Jeremy over for afternoon tea. At first Anderson and the leader of the anti-Moore student movement, Aryan-looking Sean Vreeland, argue that Moore's appearance fee, some $40,000, constitutes a misuse of student funds, though neither complains when ultra-conservative Fox News commentator Sean Hannity is invited to appear at UVSC, too. Nor did they complain when Barbara Bush visited UVSC a few years before, also charged $40,000 for her visit.
For his part, high-handed Hannity waives his usual speaking fee, insisting only that the university foot his "travel expenses" (private jet, fuel, etc.), coincidentally also about $40,000. When it turns out that both events sell out and thus essentially pay for themselves, Anderson and Vreeland eventually change tactics (though Vreeland continues to imply that the school stands to lose 40 grand on Moore, even after that's proven not to be the case). They demonize Moore as a man who "hates who we are, hates our values and ... would like to destroy us." Anti-Moore billboards are erected, and on the local NPR talk show, a listener argues that the filmmaker should be "tried for treason, convicted, and executed." The anger people like Anderson and Vreeland feel about the controversial filmmaker quickly loses all sense of reality and proportion, with one student condemning Moore for selling his "movies to the governments of Cuba, France, Russia, and Germany." Huh?
Eventually, Anderson offers to buy back all the tickets to the Moore event, and in a grandly theatrical gesture, presents a cashier's check for $25,000 to get the buy-out rolling. When money doesn't work, Anderson files a lawsuit hoping to badger the student government into submission. This continues long after Michael Moore has come and gone.
None of this alleged anti-Americanism is on display in the long excerpts from Moore's speech at UVSC, where he mostly advocates health care, education, equal pay for equal work, etc. for all Americans, conservatives included. In contrast, Sean Hannity, also preaching to the converted, arrogantly condescends to the smattering of liberals in attendance: "You're either with us or against us," he seems to say, letting his audience shout them down when they dare participate in the Q&A part of the program. (In a scene apparently intended to provide some balance, or something, Moore's handlers kick out a couple of Ralph Nader supporters.)
Ultimately though, Hannity and Moore are really minor players in a painfully sad tale of intolerance in a state founded by religious leaders fleeing the same sort of hate their descendents now espouse.
The film does a good job chronicling the controversy, despite several pointless digressions badly imitative of Michael Moore's own directorial style - a UVSC student named Michael Moore is tracked down, along with a Moore look-alike, a Republican who cashes in on his resemblance to the filmmaker. The film errs in other ways as well. A postscript implies that the vice-president of the student government ultimately lost his position as part of a settlement agreement with Anderson, but the DVD's extras show that this was not the case at all, that the student in question was publicizing an upcoming book about the incident while still active in student government. Mostly, though, This Divided State presents both sides of the controversy in a straightforward manner.
Video & Audio
This Divided State is another (essentially) direct-to-video, hot off the presses shot-on-tape documentary from the unfortunately-named Disinformation label and presented in 4:3 standard size. The image is decent throughout, with better lighting and source audio than some of the label's earlier releases. The stereo soundtrack is also fine for what it is, though the lack of subtitles is unfortunate.
Supplements include Hannity vs. Moore, with 20 and 16 minutes, respectively, of highlights from their speeches. The Resignation runs 10 minutes and is a useful and informative postscript. A Propaganda Music Video with The Slackers didn't win this critic over, but Angry Man and The Usual Suspects, with close to an hour of additional unused footage may interest those who want to dig deeper. Finally, there's a Filmmakers' Video Diary and Trailer, along with no less than two Audio Commentary Tracks.
Long after Michael Moore and Sean Hannity have gone home, the day of the 2004 presidential election arrives and in the film's closing scenes, conservatives and liberals alike make their way to the local polling places. This sequence is accompanied by Johann Pachelbel's serene Canon in D, but even without the music the message is clear: for one brief moment, the shouting stops and everyone speaks with one voice of equal weight, unaware that the discord between them is about to get much, much worse.
Stuart Galbraith IV is a Kyoto-based film historian whose work includes The Emperor and the Wolf - The Lives and Films of Akira Kurosawa and Toshiro Mifune and Taschen's forthcoming Cinema Nippon. Visit Stuart's Cine Blogarama here.