It will be fascinating to see how critics of Michael Moore's "Fahrenheit 9/11" respond to Steven Greenstreet's riveting documentary "This Divided State." Whereas Moore's scathing indictment of the Bush administration's post-9/11 war policy never pretended to offer an unbiased viewpoint, Greenstreet's passionate defense of free speech is not so easily dismissed.
In examining the uproar over Moore's appearance at Utah Valley State College on Oct. 20, 2004, Greenstreet's relative objectivity allows both sides of an incendiary debate to feel vindicated over their staunchly held beliefs.
In the final analysis, any free-speech position clearly favors Moore (although "we all see things through filters," says UVSC's professor of humanities). But as its title suggests, "This Divided State" is not about supporting anyone's agenda, but rather the utter failure of civil discourse in Orem City, Utah — officially designated "Family City, U.S.A." — where conservatives outnumber liberals 12 to 1 and where UVSC's student body were engaged in ideological warfare with red-state locals over the appropriateness of Moore's sold-out appearance.
The human drama that erupts from this collision of ideals is gut-wrenching and ultimately tragic. Culled from 67 hours of material, the documented controversy represents a seething microcosm of our nation's pre-election conflict, including a UVSC appearance (nine days before Moore's) by conservative Fox News pundit Sean Hannity, and focuses on a central character (villain or hero, take your pick) in Kay Anderson.
A real-estate multimillionaire, Anderson brands Moore as "evil," offers $25,000 to block Moore's appearance and files a lawsuit against the student government for allowing Moore's appearance to proceed as scheduled.
Why tragic? Because in all the furor over speaking fees (Moore charges $40,000, while Hannity waives his $100,000 fee but receives $50,000 for private jet, crew and fuel expenses) and in the glorious display of passion on either side of the issues, "This Divided State" reveals the same conservative bullying and liberal weakness that turned UVSC's ideological stalemate into America's post-election wartime malaise.
The end result, as Greenstreet — former Brigham Young University student and practicing Mormon — so effectively demonstrates, is that nobody wins, everybody loses and personal relationships are destroyed in the process. If that sounds depressing, fear not: No matter where you stand, "This Divided State" has a patriotic, galvanizing effect. And 2008 is less than three years away.
Jeff Shannon: firstname.lastname@example.org