'The Fight' salutes ACLU attorneys in sincere but slow documentary

  • "The Fight" details the efforts of Dale Ho and other attorneys for the American Civil Liberties Union.

    "The Fight" details the efforts of Dale Ho and other attorneys for the American Civil Liberties Union. Courtesy of Magnolia Pictures

  • "The Fight" details the efforts of Brigitte Amiri, left, Dale Ho and other attorneys for the American Civil Liberties Union.

    "The Fight" details the efforts of Brigitte Amiri, left, Dale Ho and other attorneys for the American Civil Liberties Union. Courtesy of Magnolia Pictures

Updated 7/30/2020 4:41 PM

"The Fight" - ★ ★

The ACLU marks its 100th birthday this year.


To celebrate the momentous occasion, documentary directors Elyse Steinberg, Josh Kriegman and Eli Despres plus producer Kerry Washington have prepared a special gift for the organization: "The Fight," a documentary examining four of the 147 lawsuits filed by the American Civil Liberties Union against the Trump administration.

It's a pretty sincere film that strives to salute the tireless attorneys' efforts to preserve the civil liberties of all Americans, even the ones who arrived here after Christopher Columbus.

But I have to say that I'm slightly disappointed in the gift wrapping.

I expected something a little flashier, more dramatic, you know, something that would reflect the conflict and intensity of a feisty organization founded a century ago on Jan. 19 by Helen Keller, Jane Addams, six attorneys and three other activists.

As documentaries go, "The Fight" sticks to a fairly conventional, mostly linear narrative that has a soft start and a s-l-o-w build to the outcome of four recent cases.

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The four lawsuits involve a presidential tweet that prohibited transgender people from military service, the forced family separation policy at the U.S./Mexican border, a teenage rape victim denied an abortion at a refugee facility, and a new "are you an American citizen" question added to the 2020 census, a move designed to limit seats in the House of Representatives for diverse communities.

The most prominent member of the team would be ACLU Deputy Director Lee Gelernt, a middle-aged attorney who looks like he hasn't slept for a week. He resents sacrificing family time for his job, yet he devotes long hours to reuniting immigrant parents with their separated children. (Gelernt also provides some welcome tension when a major Supreme Court decision comes down just as he's about to go live on TV, and has less than a minute to read it, understand it and reply.)

We see how Brigitte Amiri defends her 17-year-old anonymous client, called "Jane Doe" (glimpsed only with shots of her white sneakers and the back of her head) against disparaging innuendoes from Scott Lloyd, the director of refugee resettlement.

Then we've got Joshua Block and Chase Strangio (his real name) double-teaming to fight the administration's transgender ban from military service. Their first legal argument: Who will go before the Supreme Court?


Dale Ho works on voter suppression cases, and he practices, practices, practices his upcoming census case, when he's not worrying about the new, younger ACLU volunteers making him feel old.

These attorneys are regular working stiffs -- no charismatic stars or outrageous characters here -- and "The Fight" shows us just enough of their uncommanding personalities to humanize them.

Bathing the ACLU in an uncritical positive light, "The Fight" doesn't drop any bombshells. But it does allow us an inside glimpse of how the attorneys prep and decide what approaches and legal strategies will best serve their cases.

In fact, I noticed a large number of my fellow film critics like "The Fight" and some of them appear to be more interested in giving glowing reviews to the organization instead of the movie.

But as Chicago's late film critic Roger Ebert often said about film reviews, it's not what the movie's about, but how it is about it.

"The Fight" comes infused with time-killing shots of scene-setting, people walking and cutaway minutia.

Plus, it desperately needs a killer beginning, and already has one simply by moving up a segment in which the organization comes under attack for defending the Nazis' right to march in Skokie.

How about starting "The Fight" with a review of all the nasty things critics of the organization have said about the ACLU? ("You're a filthy organization," a non-fan barks. "Obviously, most of you are pedophiles!")

That would get things off to a feisty start and reveal how many Americans truly cherish their civil liberties -- just as long as nobody they disagree with has them, too.

• • •

A documentary directed by: Eli B. Despres and Josh Kriegman

Other: A Magnolia Pictures release. Rated PG-13 for language, brief violence. 96 minutes

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