One of the most consistently aggravating aspects of the current political climate is its frequent lack of civility or moderation; both sides in any given conflict tend to vociferously claim the moral high ground, often using the exact same rhetoric, while abandoning any pretense of interest in opposing viewpoints. To the degree that Steven Greenstreet's documentary This Divided State has any relevance to the world outside the Utah campus where its action takes place, it's in the way it encapsulates and illustrates this effect. This Divided State follows a typical university tempest in a teapot—the rabid debate that emerges when Fahrenheit 9/11 director Michael Moore schedules a speech at Utah Valley State College just weeks before the 2004 presidential election. The event is long past, and Greenstreet—a Brigham Young University student who dropped out to make this film—does nothing to tie it to larger issues of free speech or political conflict. But the debate he follows at times resembles a microcosmic version of the country, in all its frustrated polarization.
In a strongly conservative community where registered Republicans outnumber Democrats 12 to one, Moore's imminent arrival sparks strong feelings on all sides, and the college's students, faculty, and administration get drawn into the active campus-wide debate. Sneering conservative talk-show host Sean Hannity is brought in for balance; protests, petitions, and public debate forums ensue; and the administration admirably comes down in favor of civility, free speech, student self-determination, and open discussion. The loudest and most strident voice comes from local activist Kay Anderson, who brims with contempt for the way the university and its students "insult this community's values." His comment on the prospect of admitting controversial outside opinions into his town: "I don't want the world in Utah County. We can go visit it."
While few viewers are likely to have a vested interest in the question of Moore's 2004 arrival or non-arrival at one university, Greenstreet's footage of confrontations, escalations, and infuriating self-righteousness is often riveting. Anderson in particular is mesmerizing, with his veiled threats, lawsuits, and smug dismissals of his opposition. Unfortunately, Greenstreet dissipates the tension with distracting, undisciplined editing; unfunny, Moore-esque stunts (like a visit to Moore Pizza, or interviews with students who look like Moore or share his name); and random shots of clouds, mountains, and buildings. The montages of protestors or political stock footage set to music drag on pointlessly. And in the end, like most campus controversies, the whole crisis peters out. But elsewhere, across the country, similar debates rage on, and Greenstreet's film at least serves as a reminder of how useless public debate becomes when everyone's screaming and no one's listening.