The American Civil Liberties Union battles the Trump administration on multiple fronts in “The Fight,” an excellent documentary that captures the heady political moment for which the organization was born. Presented in a taut, tense way, it’s a glimpse into what makes the ACLU tick with the pacing and stakes of a dramatic thriller.
Split into four separate cases, directors Elyse Steinberg, Josh Kriegman and Eli Despres have clearly cast this as a David-and-Goliath story, with the scrappy lawyers pitching stones at the government on the issues of LGBTQ rights, immigration, abortion and voting rights.
However one feels about the ACLU, there’s an inescapable sense that, as one of the attorneys says, the organization represents the tip of the spear right now for progressive lawyers who feel determined to try and make a difference.
That crusading, of course, comes at a price, not only in the long hours and angst, but the hate-filled messages that fill their voicemails.
The ACLU’s protection of even those with whom they disagree has long been a source of controversy, and the filmmakers touch upon that as well — capturing the pain and soul searching associated with representing the white supremacists that marched in Charlottesville, a case of the guiding philosophical mandate crashing into harsh reality.
“The Fight” has chosen its subjects shrewdly, watching Dale Ho nervously prepare to argue his first case before the Supreme Court, or peering over the shoulder of Lee Gelent as he frantically reads a just-issued opinion so he can competently discuss the ruling during a live hit on MSNBC.
Although the documentary finished production a while ago, the ACLU’s battles with the government have continued right up until its debut, including recent actions on behalf of former Trump attorney Michael Cohen — helping secure his release from prison to home confinement — and winning a temporary restraining order blocking federal officers from arresting journalists or legal observers at protests in Portland.
Perhaps inevitably, the various skirmishes yield both the thrill of victory and the agony of defeat for the lawyers, while putting a haunting face on what’s at stake when a tearful mother — caught up in the Trump administration’s immigration policy of separating families — is reunited with her child.
There’s a degree of emotional manipulation in that, and this sort of exercise is likely to wind up winning few political converts. Ultimately, though, if the goal is to go beyond the headlines and illustrate the personal toll of these issues — while simultaneously humanizing lawyers on the front lines litigating them — score “The Fight” as a technical knockout.
“The Fight” premieres on demand on July 31.