Film Review: Split: A Deeper Divide

Short but still rambling documentary about current American political hyper-partisanship is more unfiltered download of op-ed talking points than the thoughtful investigation the filmmakers seem to believe they’re making.

The nation is hopelessly divided; Washington is broken; people only listen to news pre-slanted to their ideology; there is no room left for even-tempered discourse. We have heard all this before, which doesn’t mean that Split: A Deeper Divide, a film about the state of American political partisanship, doesn’t tackle a worthy subject. (That would be like saying that since we have already been told war is hell, every war film after All Quiet on the Western Front has been a waste of time.) But it also doesn’t mean that this film brings anything new to the topic.

Split is really two films, whose respective bits are none too elegantly shuffled together. The main body of the film, the more recognizable part, is a series of talking heads, many boldface names among them, opining on the current state of American democracy. (Hint: Things aren’t going well.) Writer-director Kelly Nyks kicks off his discussion of partisanship with two eminently reasonable senators: Democrat Evan Bayh and Republican Chuck Hagel. Both discuss how in Washington it’s no virtue to compromise and that the place they once worked in has changed, and not for the better; they’re both retired, which speaks volumes.

From here, Nyks puts himself front and center, going on a road trip to connect with real Americans and find out how things have gotten this way. This results in a lot of soporific narration and cringe-inducing interviews which come off like a vacuous newspaper trend piece that talks to three or four random people and tries to spin their answers into a larger thesis. In between these mercifully short pieces, Nyks talks to lefties like Noam Chomsky as well as right-wingers like the American Enterprise Institute’s Norman Ornstein (unlike most of its brethren, the film makes more than a token effort to include the conservative voice) about how the divide between political ideologies has become so stark.

At least, in theory. Split is less a pointed essay on an important topic than it is a slop bucket of theorizing about nearly every larger trend in current American politics, with little of it treated in any depth. Topics that actually have a lot to do with increased partisanship—such as gerrymandering Congressional districts and the trend of populations to select homes in places where most people share their beliefs—are brought up but handled in only the most superficial fashion. The frequently voiced nostalgia for a time when Americans supposedly talked politics in the friendliest of manners is backed up by precious few facts on the ground.

Although Nyks is able to assemble an impressively stellar cast of interviewees, their insights tend toward the anodyne, overly familiar, or responsibility-evading. One particular example of the latter is the appearance here of Tucker Carlson, who has been playing the role of nice-guy-conservative nerd in the media for years. Bringing in the editor-in-chief of the website Daily Caller, which specializes in a particularly nasty and hyperventilating brand of attack journalism, to discuss the evils of partisanship is a particularly inelegant move. Using footage of the Gabrielle Giffords shooting’s aftermath to hint that it was about partisanship without bothering to try and prove it, is just about as cheap a move.

Even without getting into the dumbed-down animated segments that try, Michael Moore-style, to explain concepts like the Telecommunications Act, or the low-budget, knocked-together look of the whole thing, Split feels like a well-intentioned film whose makers never wrapped their heads around what it was they wanted to say and so dropped in every theory about and nostrum for partisanship that we’ve all been reading for years now. This isn’t a film, it’s a laundry list.