Formed in 1920, the American Civil Liberties Union, a.k.a. the ACLU, had been defending the rights of the tired, the poor, the huddled masses yearning to breathe free for nearly a century when Donald Trump was sworn in to the presidency in January of 2017. The organization knew they would have their hands full when the former Reality TV star/failed real-estate mogul was granted the keys to the kingdom — and even they probably couldn’t have predicted just how many wars on numerous civil-liberty fronts they’d be combating. The Fight, the documentary by Eli B. Despres, Josh Kriegman and Elyse Steinberg, informs us at the outset that “they are 128 lawsuits against Trump’s administration.” It shines the spotlight on four of them: an immigration-rights case involving a mother whose daughter was separated from her at the border (“Ms. L v. ICE”); a reproductive-rights case in which a detained 17-year-old Mexican woman has her request for an abortion denied while under federal custody (“Garza v. Hargan”); an LGBTQ-rights case stemming from the President’s seemingly impromptu ban on transgender soldiers serving in the military (“Stone v. Trump”); and a voting-rights case involving the demand to declare whether you’re a U.S. citizen on census forms (“Dept. of Commerce v. New York”).
The result is a patchwork portrait of a legal institution strained to the brink, albeit one that still has a giddy, collegiate office culture and finds time to do Whiskey Wednesdays. It valorizes both the entity as a whole — deservedly so — and the five individuals handling the nuts and bolts of these suits, though the trio of documentarians are also quick to humanize them. Dale Ho, who’s handling the census issue, spends hours reciting arguments in the mirror and frets that he is not spending enough time with his family. Chase Strangio worries aloud to fellow lawyer Joshua Block that he’s being assigned to defend Navy petty officer Brock Stone’s case simply because he’s one of the few trans employees on staff. When Brigitte Amiri gets news that a hearing has gone in her favor regarding the recognition of refugees in custody as U.S. citizens, she and her assistant celebrate with commuter-friendly “train wine!” Poor Lee Gelernt is locked in an eternal struggle with keeping his phone charged enough to get word on immigration-related case verdicts. (Spoiler alert: The phone always wins.)
But goofball interludes and the occasional jauntily scored montage aside, The Fight consistently reminds you that the ACLU really is the tip of the spear in terms of maintaining democracy. All three of the filmmakers worked on Weiner (Kriegman and Steinberg directed it; Despres edited it), and like that flawed but fascinating 2016 portrait of the disgraced former Congressman, this dispatch from the frontlines works best when it stops trying to be an overly accessible pop-doc. There’s a genuine sense of the stakes of these arguments, with the administration continually checking for weak spots in the nation’s firmament and the union’s lawyers working to shore things up before full erosion sets in. It also gives you a firsthand look at the collateral damage of this election, as well as the actual labor of being a legal eagle for the organization. These five people are working extremely hard, but not tirelessly — you see how exhausted they are at the end of the days, weeks and months of mounting these cases. It takes a toll, as does the racist/sexist hate mail and phone messages they receive. Nevertheless, they persist. They have no choice. If not them, who else?
Gerlent, Ho, Strangio, Block and Amiri will all tell you that they defend the right to be called names as much as they defend the rights of those who the government would disenfranchise or marginalize, of course, and to its credit, the doc does run its finger along both sides of the double-edged sword. The ACLU stood up for Neo-Nazis when they wanted to hold a march in Skokie, Illinois, back in 1977; it also argued that the infamous alt-right rally in Charlottesville, the one that resulted in the death of Heather Hayer, was protected under the First Amendment. You get to hear several folks responsible for that decision express remorse, even as they acknowledge that free speech means free speech regardless of the opinions in said speech, full stop. (It’s worth mentioning that there are numerous examples of profanity that are bleeped out in the film, which was done so the doc could get a PG-13 rating. Please take this moment to savor and swirl the irony around in your mouth like a fine Bordeaux.)
What the film really underlines, however, is what has been the basis for so many of the battles the ACLU has fought since Trump’s inauguration. (Please note: footage of the event is played over the film’s opening, so consider yourself trigger-warned.) And that is: Who gets to be called American, and who gets to truly enjoy the life, liberty and pursuit of happiness our founding fathers envisioned as the USA’s endgame? The fact we have to continually protect such notions from both implicit and now explicit examples of tyranny is a shame and, frankly, a crime, but it’s a never-ending battle that needs to be fought. These lawyers remind you that not all heroes wear capes — many of them wear khakis and/or heels, and some of them can’t keep a cellphone charged. But they are undoubtedly heroes nonetheless. The Fight may be cursed with a generic name. But it’s a 100-percent accurate one.