Opening with some isolated audio from Donald Trump’s inauguration, The Fight arrives with a clear point of view: every day under the current US administration is a battle. The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), as of the completion of the film, had filed 147 lawsuits against the sitting president, and The Fight serves as an introduction to the on-the-ground (and on the train, and in the air) work that a mere handful of its top lawyers do in order to stem the most egregious attacks on American rights under the Constitution. Directors Elyse Steinberg, Josh Kriegman, and Eli Despres (the team behind Weiner) turn what could be a dense overload of information into a genuinely engaging, high-stakes, character-driven piece, thanks in no small part to its featured players: the lawyers.
Lee Gelernt, Brigitte Amiri, Chase Strangio and Joshua Block, and Dale Ho are the charismatic and dynamic powerhouses behind ACLU’s Immigrant Rights, Reproductive Rights, LGBTQ+ Rights, and Voting Rights departments, respectively. Gelernt — whose main cases of family separation and detention cover some of the most unthinkable horrors in recent headlines — is portrayed at once as a determined, seasoned advocate, and as a bumbling boomer who can never seem to figure out how to charge his cell phone. The beleaguered Amiri is a steadfast, no-bullshit researcher who, along with colleague Megan Burrows, races against time (and panels of judges, stacked with the likes of Brett Kavanaugh) to argue that the delay of a detained minor’s abortion is unconstitutional. When the smallest bit of good news arrives, they celebrate with “train wine!” on the weary journey back to New York — one of the lightest moments pictured for Amiri. Strangio’s introductory sequence, in which takes dozens of phone calls as his young, adorably curious child wreaks as much unintentional havoc as a grade-school mind will allow, aptly sets up his own investment as a compassionate young parent, and the only non-cis lawyer of the big five.
With these inclusions — as well as goofy office tours, standing desk snafus, and the reading of scathing hate mail — the documentary takes care in transforming abstract figures of justice into real people and competent protagonists, which becomes increasingly important in The Fight’s structurally fractured narrative. While the plaintiffs in all cases are pictured, with at least a line or two explaining their predicaments, most of them take a backseat to the lawyers who represent them — an uncomfortable but understandable choice in a documentary focused on the practitioners of law more than whom the law directly affects.
Dale Ho is one of the most compelling figures of the film, which is a difficult task amidst such company. A father and husband, he openly acknowledges the sacrifices he is making — and not without some anguish. Posited against Strangio, he and Amiri voice the burden that their enormously stressful jobs put on their families, but as Ho explains, “If I’m not going to be a Civil Rights lawyer now, then when?” His preparation ahead of his first Supreme Court appearance — arguing that the citizenship question on the 2020 census is merely a pretext to intimidate undocumented peoples and their families — is one of the most quietly harrowing moments of the film, stumbling over his opening argument in an empty hotel room. These quieter moments, which show the lawyers grappling with the enormity of their task with real grief and anxiety, is a testament to the documentary crew’s ability to capture some of the more authentic emotional moments of the currently Sisyphean work of human rights protection.
What is consistent, but disappointing, with The Fight’s portrayal of heroism is the lack of depth with which it critiques the ACLU as an organization. One such opportunity presents itself obviously: the pattern of the ACLU to defend clients’ freedom of speech no matter their conflicting missions, such as its decision to allow the neo-Nazi organizers of the Unite the Right rally to sue Charlottesville, Virginia for a permitted march. This segment had the potential to take The Fight into a much deeper conversation on the responsibility in decision-making in one of the US’s most recognizable and trusted watchdog institutions.
Where there is some added complexity introduced, Strangio’s deference to cisgender colleague Joshua Block arguing the Trans Military Ban case is all but brushed over, too. At a time where more bills than ever seek to legally delineate the gender binary, trans people are expected to become litigators for their very existence. In a microcosm of this situation, Strangio mentions that the reason he is not as experienced and confident a litigator as Block is that Strangio has had to spend most of his time teaching the ACLU what “trans” really means. This admission — a mere blip in the documentary — speaks to a culture of bureaucracy at the ACLU which has not yet moved past asking a trans person to explain their existence.
The Fight succeeds most thrillingly when it makes bold choices, such as the beautiful animations that capture much more emotion than the standard court illustrations. Should it have been bolder in probing into the more uncomfortable arguments within the organization, it would surely have escaped any accusations of just being a 90-minute-advertisement. As it is, the documentary is a worthy watch for anyone needing a logical breakdown of some of the most fearsome cases of the last three years, or a reminder of the tenacity of people — not just the lawyers, but the countless protestors, community organizers, students, and activists — to unrelentingly question those few in power who are in mighty disdain for human dignity.