Sunday Movie Review: ‘The Fight’ documents the ACLU in the age of Trump

“The Fight,” Elyse Steinberg, Josh Kriegman and Eli Despress’ documentary about the American Civil Liberties Union, opens with the inauguration of Donald Trump. His oath rings out like an opening salvo. In just seven days, protests will be amassed at JFK Airport in New York where ACLU attorneys rush to counter the Trump’s administration’s travel ban from seven Muslim-majority nations.

“The Fight,” which debuts on-demand Friday, works from that moment forward, trying to keep pace with the ACLU in a ceaseless battle over civil rights. It’s a perpetual and frantic struggle, with workaholic lawyers always racing to court and seeking injunctions on the fly. “The Fight” zeroes in on four prominent Trump-era cases for the ACLU.

The directors last made the 2016 Anthony Weiner documentary “Weiner.” That film began as a fly-on-the-wall portrait of an up-and-coming New York politician, only to turn into a front-row seat to political disaster as Weiner’s career self-immolated in a sexting scandal.

“The Fight,” timed to the 100th anniversary of the ACLU, bears no such arc. It begins with a warm impression of the ACLU and concludes with one. It is, some would say, a glossy advertisement for the historic nonprofit organization, even if the film, like its characters, doesn’t shy away from the divisive role that the ACLU plays in American life for some. Their attorneys dutifully read their own hate mail. “Obviously most of you are pedophiles,” says one caller.

But just as in “Weiner,” the filmmakers have a gift for capturing colorful personalities in high-pressure political environments. Our characters here include the perpetually rumpled Lee Gelernt, who’s representing an immigrant woman separated for months from her young daughter; Brigitte Amiri, who’s defending a teenage immigrant woman who, after being raped, is barred from an abortion in Texas; Dale Ho, a fastidious lawyer arguing against a citizenship question on the U.S. census; and Josh Block and Chase Strangio, who oppose the Trump administration’s ban on transgender soldiers serving in the military.

Tracking these cases for nearly three years, “The Fight” burrows into life at the ACLU. In a guided tour of their New York offices, Ho acknowledges it’s a unique culture. “There are probably more tattoos and piercings here at the ACLU than there are at the DOJ,” he says.

Part of the film’s pleasure is in how the directors juxtapose the weighty, righteous causes of its attorneys with their humbler, eminently human lives. A win in the abortion case is celebrated by the commuting Amiri with a glass, she exclaims, of “Train wine!” In the midst of a dramatic turn in the family separation case, Gelernt is helplessly unable to charge his phone. When a younger colleague hands him a charger and directs him to his computer’s USB port, she might as well be giving him instructions on how to reach Neptune.

Still, the stakes are always present. While “The Fight” concentrates on the ACLU’s legal crusaders, the few glimpses it affords to those the attorneys are representing are powerful. Perhaps it could use more of people outside the courtroom. But the few scenes, for example, of immigrant parents talking about their children being taken away from them are devastating.

Sometimes, “The Fight” could pry more closely. When the ACLU supported the First Amendment rights of white supremacist marchers in Charlottesville, Virginia, it prompted soul-searching throughout the ACLU. Here, legal director David Cole makes the case: “It’s not a right for people you agree with. It’s a right for everybody.” But “The Fight” would be a better documentary if it had captured the dialogue within the ACLU as it happened.

What most vividly comes across in “The Fight” is the never-ending nature of freedom and democracy. No case is ever really over; there are always more challenges to come, more legal battles to fight. A right earned requires endless vigilance, or it will slip away. And as tempting, in a summer without superheroes, to think of the courtroom warriors of “The Fight” as saviors, it’s not a role they embrace. They can do only so much to plug all the holes in a vessel always springing leaks. “It’s not going to be lawyers in courts,” says Ho. “It’s going to be people who turn this ship around.”

“The Fight,” a Magnolia Pictures release, is rated PG-13 by the Motion Picture Association of America for strong language, thematic material and brief violence. Running time: 96 minutes. Three and a half stars out of four. ___

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