“Frontline’s” particular gift, especially when it comes to its political reporting, is to tell a story the audience knows already — but better. Its subjects are some of the most highly scrutinized figures in the world; its events are flashpoints for conversation. Especially when recounting recent history — the kind that takes place after the invention of the smartphone camera and Twitter — there is no lack of raw material, of sheer detail, about what transpired in America following close back-to-back milestones of the worst financial crisis since the Great Depression and the election of the junior senator from Illinois to the highest office in the land. For most members of the audience, there is also no lack of memory — of the news reports on the day Lehman Brothers filed for bankruptcy, or President Barack Obama’s inauguration, or the shooting deaths of Trayvon Martin and Mike Brown, the massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary. Producer, director, and writer Michael Kirk chooses a moment from very recent memory to be his illustrative window into the bizarre, disjointed America we now live in: The moment where Obama sat down with president-elect Donald Trump — two men who are diametrically opposed, ideologically, rhetorically, behaviorally. How did we get here? is a question stamped in the subtext of those few minutes, practically visible on Obama’s face.
“Divided States of America” cannot quite be a comprehensive history of the last eight years, partly because the last eight years expose so many frailties at the American foundation that it is hard to know where to start. But it tries valiantly to tell the story of how the American populace polarized under the Obama administration, even though his mission was explicitly to unify the nation. Watching it unfold, it makes the unbelievable present increasingly obvious.
At one point, interviewee Peter Baker, of the New York Times, points out that Obama always believed “rational people of good will” could find a way to common ground. But around this statement, “Divided States of America” inexorably lays out just how irrational and ill-willed the American citizenry can be, on both sides of the party line. Producer, director, and writer Michael Kirk focuses both on Obama’s journey as a leader and on the easily ignored murmurs of resentment that captured recession-stricken Americans furious at the Wall Street bailout, white voters suspicious of Obama’s race, Congressmen with chips on their shoulders, and black protesters who took to the streets.
Along the way, it becomes the story of how the rise of the Tea Party and the birther movement held the GOP hostage to its darkest impulses — ones that just a few years earlier Senator John McCain would refuse to legitimize on the national stage. As quickly pivotal Republicans like House Majority Leader Eric Cantor and Speaker of the House John Boehner rose to power, they were just as quickly ousted, excoriated as establishment shills by the increasingly vitriolic mouthpieces of conservative media — Mark Levin, Laura Ingraham, and Rush Limbaugh, among others. The wild, xenophobic anger that prompted Republicans at rallies to declare that they didn’t trust Barack Obama because he was an “Arab” or a “Muslim” transformed, through political expediency and attrition, from an embarrassing fringe of the GOP to its vocal, rabid base. And though the divisions in America are not just about Obama’s race, “Divided States” displays with ruthless clarity just how racially inflected the rhetoric around him was.
Kirk, who regularly works with “Frontline” on several productions a year, is especially skilled when it comes to telling the stories behind the politicians of our era. While most conversations between reporters and elected officials last seconds or minutes, Kirk typically blocks off hours to talk to each relevant adviser, journalist, politician and pollster. “Divided States of America” includes surprisingly warm and candid moments with Cantor, former Speaker Newt Gingrich, Trump spokeswoman Kellyanne Conway, Republican pollster Frank Luntz, New Yorker editor-in-chief David Remnick, and former Secretary of the Treasury Tim Geithner. In a moment of candor that seems too honest to be real, Gingrich, with a shrug and a smile, admits to deciding with other Republican lawmakers in a clandestine meeting on Inauguration Day that they would obstruct President Obama’s agenda from day one.
The documentary painstakingly — and painfully — reconstructs the major crises of the Obama administration, charting the incremental ways that the president and Congress ossified into their current forms. It creates narrative arcs out of the news that can be viewed from different sides of the political divide. A narrative of black empowerment and long-buried trauma on one side is a frightening specter of racial violence and “grievance politics” on the other.
If “Divided States of America” fails, it is only in that it implies an audience that is capable of seeing the other half that it is willfully blind to. It’s hard to know if that is a failure or instead a brilliant attempt at a Hail Mary. Kirk makes room for individuals from vastly different points of view — Grover Norquist and Ta-Nehisi Coates, Roger Stone and Jelani Cobb, Valerie Jarrett and Kellyanne Conway. Perhaps the intended “Divided States of America” is nothing more than the better angels of a population disgusted with each other.
“Divided States of America” makes for an emotional four-hour journey through some of the last eight years’ failures and triumphs, and each successive example feels like a further turn of the screw. It is difficult to watch. Most of the tragedies and indignities of the last eight years are still far too fresh, and if the beginning of 2017 is any indication, the ultra-polarization of the American populace has only just begun to wreak its havoc on our institutions. Because it is a document of history, the documentary doesn’t have much to say about how to move forward. The polarization of America explains, to some degree, the rise of Trump. But Trump, as a politician and president, promises disharmony above all.