THE FIGHT movie poster | ©2020 Magnolia Pictures

THE FIGHT movie poster | ©2020 Magnolia Pictures

Rating: PG-13
Stars: Lee Gelernt, Brigitte Amiri, Dale Ho, Josh Block, Chase Strangio
Directors: Elyse Steinberg, Josh Kriegman, Eli Despres
Distributor: Magnolia Pictures
Release Date: July 31, 2020

THE FIGHT is a documentary about the American Civil Liberties Union, or ACLU. More specifically, as we are informed by a supertitle near the start, THE FIGHT is about four of the hundreds of lawsuits that the ACLU has brought against the Trump administration.

In THE FIGHT, we follow four lawyers from the ACLU’s New York headquarters. Lee Gelernt, who specializes in immigrants’ rights, seeks to reunite parents and children who have been separated from one another by ICE. Brigitte Amiri, who specializes in reproductive rights, represents a minor who has been raped while in ICE detention and seeks to terminate the resulting pregnancy. Dale Ho, a voting rights expert facing his first Supreme Court argument, is battling the administration’s attempt to add a citizenship question to the U.S. Census. Josh Block and Chase Strangio, who work on LGBT rights, deal with the administrations efforts to ban transgender service members from the U.S. military.

THE FIGHT is unabashedly partisan, which is to say, it’s on the side of the ACLU lawyers. Viewers who agree with the ACLU’s positions may feel like screaming when reminded of what the lawyers are up against and cases that are sometimes lost; viewers who don’t like the ACLU and still watch the whole documentary will probably feel like screaming for other reasons.

Either way, THE FIGHT provides what feels like a pleasingly global exploration of what it’s like to be an ACLU attorney. We see the preparations for court arguments, the offices, the attorneys’ private lives (complete with bubbly small childen), interactions with clients, and reactions to verdicts. We also get some occasional courtroom footage, interspersed with animation under audio recordings when presumably no video footage was available. This fits fairly smoothly with the rest of the material.

There’s a segment devoted to hate mail – paper, electronic, and voice – received by the lawyers, and some moments of humor. (For everyone who keeps suggesting that voice transcription software is ready for everyday use, THE FIGHT is here to demonstrate that, no, it’s not.)

THE FIGHT even shows us a bit of ACLU internal disagreement on serious issues, such as whether the organization should have (as it did) helped white supremacists get a permit to demonstrate in Charlottesville, VA, an event that culminated in the vehicular murder of Heather Heyer. We see the oft-utilized footage of the car plowing into the crowd, which remains horrifying. This is one of the few places where the filmmakers don’t take a side, but allow ACLU lawyers of different views to both score points.

Although THE FIGHT has three directors – Elyse Steinberg, Josh Kriegman, Eli Despres – it feels like a consistent whole. However, there are some pacing issues. Because it’s covering so much ground, every time one case starts to gather momentum, the film cuts away to something else. With so much to cover in terms of subject matter, this understandable, but it still causes us to continually refocus when instinct makes us want to move in for a closer look. We also get the feeling that there’s much more to examine than the running time can accommodate. Before THE FIGHT is over, some viewers may wonder if the seconds devoted to establishing shots might have been better used for more case exploration.

There’s nothing wrong with documentary that works as propaganda, so long as it has its facts straight. THE FIGHT, with its attention to detail, seems wholly credible.  Indeed, it’s likely that the target audience for THE FIGHT will be heartened by seeing civil rights champions hard at work. The movie is careful to make the point, articulated by Ho, that attorneys can’t win the fight by themselves, that ordinary citizens need to stand up and be counted.

At one moment, Gelernt says, “It’s so horrendous what’s happening.” THE FIGHT is here to both illustrate this statement, and to depict what the ACLU is doing to make things better. It’s worthy, educational, ambitious, sometimes depressing and occasionally even fun, even if it doesn’t have the ability to be comprehensive.

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