A chilling current U.S. trend toward shouting down (if not outright shutting down) any “free speech” that doesn’t please the listener is graphically illustrated in “This Divided State,” documaker Steven Greenstreet’s feature debut. Chronicling the jaw-dropping overreaction of students and local residents when docmeister Michael Moore is booked for a lecture in a conservative Utah college town just before the 2004 presidential election, pic is as boisterous as it is sobering. Recent glut of political docus and all things Moore-related may limit this latecomer’s theatrical prospects, but provocative item merits a look from fests, broadcasters, educators and specialty distribbers.
Though Utah Valley State College had booked many political speakers before, none incited much protest — let alone the firestorm unleashed when it was announced that Moore would appear on this campus located in ultra-conservative, mostly Mormon “Family City U.S.A.” (i.e. Orem City, Utah).
Though nobody in the docu seems to have actually seen “Fahrenheit 9/11,” people have “heard” enough to know Moore’s bad news. The liberal propagandist is labeled “un-American,” “evil,” a purveyor of “hatred and filth” who should “be tried for treason and executed,” comparable to (who else but) Hitler.
Student government leaders are asked to resign, but stick to their guns, pointing out that Moore’s $40,000 fee was covered by sponsors and ticket sales. Therefore, they cannot be accused of “misuse” of school/taxpayer monies.
Student leaders, however, attempt to calm waters by also booking right-wing Fox News pundit Sean Hannity. (He made a big show of waiving his lecture fee, but asked his travel expenses be paid for — to the tune of $50,000.)
Furious debates on campus and in the local media are fanned by upstanding resident Kay Anderson, whose family values stance leads him to file a lawsuit against the university and student leaders for bringing this “poison” to Orem City. “Free speech works because most of us have the good sense to know when to keep our mouths shut,” he says.
Myriad community meetings are held; 10,000 anti-Moore signatures are collected; donors say they’ll pull their UVSC donations; and the beleaguered student government president and vice president receive anonymous violent threats.
The ugliness is heightened when Hannity makes his appearance several days before Moore. Former ridicules those liberals brave enough to identify themselves in his audience and leads the others in jingoistic chants.
Then again, Moore’s climactic, grandstanding appearance isn’t much more dignified, playing like a pep rally for down-but-not-yet-out lefties.
Among the saner voices heard here are those who remind that Mormons originally fled to Utah precisely to escape persecution for their minority views. An exchange student from Togo urges angry folks at a community forum to value their free speech rights (and those of others), since in many other nations even debating an issue publicly can result in jail or death.
Greenstreet, a Mormon himself who dropped out of Brigham Young U. to cover this, exhibits a sure hand juggling various personalities and themes, allowing a certain incredulous humor but no outright condescension to inform pic’s overall perspective. A couple of very deft montages highlight the helmer’s exceptionally zippy editing job. The only disposable moments are those devoted to a particularly obnoxious prof and an attention-hungry local Moore look-alike, both of whom come off as gratuitous comedy relief.