Review: This Divided State

This Divided StateIn October of 2004 – two weeks before the hotly contested presidential election — Utah Valley State College in Orem, Utah invited filmmaker (and “liberal firebrand”) Michael Moore to speak on campus.

Since UVSC resides in a conservative area of a conservative state, there was controversy from the beginning.  Director Steven Greenstreet was a student at the time preparing for a future in film.  When the controversy broke, he decided the future was now, and so dropped out of school to film This Divided State, a documentary chronicling everything that happened before, during, and after Michael Moore’s speech.

This Divided State feels a little dated here in 2010, even though 2004 isn’t exactly distant history.  (When was the last time John Kerry was relevant?)  The US has already had another hotly contested presidential election in the meantime, and Michael Moore’s visit seems more and more irrelevant in the grand scheme of history as years pass, rather than representing a key event that future generations are going to be talking about for decades.

However, This Divided State discusses important elements from Moore’s visit that are still relevant today:  the political divides amongst Americans that are the same now (or worse) since 2004, and the purpose and definition of free speech.  In the end, This Divided State is a valuable documentary through its view into the ‘blue/red’ differences in the US, and Utah in particular.

The basics:  the UVSC Student Body Organization asked Michael Moore to speak on campus before the 2004 election, and agreed to pay $40,000 as his speaking fee.  Many students objected to their student funds being used to pay this large fee, while other students objected to Michael Moore speaking on campus at all.

Why ask Michael Moore to speak in the first place?  Near as I can figure from the documentary, the sole purpose of asking him was because having him speak in Utah would be “controversial”.

Then-UVSC Student Body President Jim Bassi comes across poorly in this film:  He grins goofily at a press conference with his then-VP Joe Vogel as he revels in the controversy he created.   He talks about how happy is with the heated debates and conflicts occurring within the student population – about how he wanted to “get students excited” and “create a spark of student involvement”…as if “sparking controversy” was purely an end to itself.

After the debate heats up, UVSC makes the defensible decision to invite “conservative firebrand” Sean Hannity to speak on campus a few days before Moore’s speech for ‘balance’ (and hopefully to placate the conservative uproar).

(Hannity waved his speaking fee for the trip, but asked UVCS to cover his travel costs which basically equaled what Michael Moore was getting for his speaking fees anyway.  The university made back the money for both speakers on ticket sales, so the money issue was irrelevant in the end.)

On the forefront of the Michael Moore opposition was Kay Anderson, a local businessman who protested that Michael Moore “doesn’t represent our community and our values” and that his presence “exposes our children to evil”.

Anderson shows a little bit of integrity by putting his money where his mouth is  (at a public meeting, he offers UVSC $25,000 in cash to make up for lost ticket sales in return for cancelling Michael Moore’s visit), but then loses it almost immediately by filing a lawsuit to get the UVSC students and officials “responsible” for the visit fired.

After the lawsuit, Bassi comes across even worse than he did before, as he stabs his VP (and close friend) in the back, forcing him to resign even when he (Bassi) seems to have been just as much “responsible” for the Michael Moore decision as Vogel.

(Yeah, I hear you – “Who cares?  In high school or college, student body officers are just figure-head positions to give ambitious students something to put on their graduate school resumes, anyway, right?”   Losing the student body position also cancels a scholarship, apparently, so it’s okay to have a little bit of sympathy for Joe.)

One fascinating part of the film is how it exposes how people make judgments and decisions about topics without really understanding both sides.  Some of the UVSC / BYU students interviewed about the Michael Moore visit say things like “Michael Moore hates America…from what I’ve heard”.   After a BYU student criticizes Michael Moore and his 2004 anti-Bush documentary Fahrenheit 9/11, Greenstreet asks him directly if he’s actually seen Fahrenheit 9/11: (“bits and pieces of it”).

(Kay Anderson, at least, adds back to his ‘integrity’ tally by being willing to watch the entirety of Fahrenheit 9/11 – albeit “the Cleanflix edited version” – before Moore’s speech so he at least knows what he’s opposing…)

The documentary has weaknesses:  fundamentally, Greenstreet doesn’t have enough unique material here to fill the full 83 minute run time.  Once the controversy hits, many of the anti-Michael Moore and pro-Michael Moore (or simply pro-free speech) people shown in the documentary say basically the same things over and over again.  Greenstreet also wastes some time with some irrelevant tangents involving a BYU student with the name “Michael Moore”, a Michael Moore look-alike, and a Star Wars DVD release party (?).

Free speech is a common theme in the movie, and one that will still resonate today.  Many of the more open-minded students in the movie admit they may not agree with Michael Moore’s politics, but respect the right for him to speak on campus to whoever wants to listen.  “The most important speech to allow is the one you disagree with” says one UVSC professor.  “All perspectives are welcome…that’s what a college is!” says another.

Kay Anderson’s response – which will probably be one of the most quoted lines from this documentary – is that “free speech works because most of us are smart enough to keep our mouth shut”.  (Whoops!  Take a mark off the integrity tally again…)

The last third of This Divided State shows a fair amount from both Michael Moore’s and Sean Hannity’s actual speeches in 2004.  Both of them are “over-the-top” in their own way, and (surprisingly) lacking in substance – at least in the abridged sections shown to us in the film.

Hannity mocks “liberals” in general and John Kerry in particular using clichéd phrases like “9/11 changed everything!”  He perhaps crosses a line by bringing a “liberal” on stage and mocking him personally – a little on the mean side, although I suppose you could say that a guy who willingly attends Hannity’s speech, publicly admits to being a “liberal”, and goes up on stage with him probably knew what he was getting into.

For his part, Michael Moore acts like he’s in a high school pep rally, opting for demagogic rhetoric rather than intelligent lecture, using exclamation points like they’re going out of style.

He defends his patriotism (“America!  Our country!”).  He rants against George W. Bush in non-specific terms (“One term president!  Elect John Kerry!”).   He mentions some key liberal goals in non-specific terms (“Universal Health Care!”, “Troops home from Iraq!”).  He raves about the students having the bravery to invite him in the first place and withstand the community uprising (“They were challenged but they wouldn’t back down!  They Wouldn’t!  Back! Down!”).  He encourages everyone to vote for John Kerry for non-specific reasons (“Make Utah blue in November!”).

Both speakers provided so little of substance in either speech, I would wonder why anyone would have paid money to see either one.  Surely Moore himself has something of significance to talk about rather than just generic encouragements to “Vote Kerry in ’04!”?

It’s kind of an ironic ending to the film:  Michael Moore came to Utah, didn’t leave any compelling message, and Bush won handily in November anyway.  What was the point of all the yelling and screaming again?  We’re left with the feeling that this whole event was a lot of wasted emotion, energy, and money for no real purpose.

Still, This Divided State is an interesting snapshot into a corner of the US, even as the Moore’s speech (and the election itself) fades away into the annals of history – demonstrating the importance of free speech, and how divided we’ve become as a nation over political classifications.

Other Random Comments:

(1) One of the ironies of watching This Divided State in 2010 (and probably one of the reasons it feels dated) is that Utah Valley had almost a mirror-image controversy in 2008, when then-Vice President Dick Cheney was asked to speak at BYU’s commencement.

After the Michael Moore experience, it was ironic how the blue/red arguments switched places completely: the liberal contingent opposed Cheney being asked to speak at all (“He doesn’t represent our values!”), and many BYU Alumni threatened to withdraw donations to the school – exactly as had happened with UVSC in 2004.

(Gee, whatever happened to “The most important speech to allow is the one you disagree with” and “All perspectives are welcome…that’s what a college is”?)

Like the Hannity invite for “balance”, the local liberals ended up asking Ralph Nader to speak at the same time in an “alternate commencement” for those who opposed BYU inviting Cheney at all.

Too bad This Divided State couldn’t have been remade at a later date to include these new events as an interesting counter-point to Michael Moore’s visit. (Greenstreet does write about Cheney’s visit and comments on the irony himself here).

(2) The DVD cover (and many of the reviews) refer to Kay Anderson’s offer to pay UVSC to cancel Moore’s visit as “bribery”. In the pure definition of the word, maybe, but current usage has a negative (and criminal) connotation that’s not really warranted. Anderson didn’t secretly call up the UVSC president and offer money to do what he wanted — his offer was in a public meeting attended by hundreds of people. He was completely open about who he was, what he was offering, and why.

You can still ask whether Anderson should have been that concerned about blocking a particular speaker from coming to campus in the first place, but making an offer to support his personal principles with his own money seems perfectly legitimate.