Editor’s note: This review was originally published at the 2020 Sundance Film Festival. Magnolia Pictures and Topic release the film on Friday, July 31.
Near the end of Elyse Steinberg, Josh Kriegman, and Eli Despres’ “The Fight,” one of the documentary’s central subjects, ACLU deputy director Lee Gelernt, is preparing for a quick hit on NBC News. The lawyer, best known for his work for immigrants’ rights, is minutes away from a live appearance discussing the state of the ACLU’s lawsuit against the government for its family separation policies. As the clock ticks down, a breaking news alert diverts everyone’s attention elsewhere: to the latest ruling in another ACLU-involved case, this one involving President Trump’s transgender military ban. Gelernt is forced to pivot, preparing talking points and official reactions before he’s thrust onto live television to sound off on yet another one of the over 100 lawsuits the American Civil Liberties Union has filed since Trump took office.
It’s perhaps the most illustrative moment in the latest film from the trio behind “Weiner,” filled with raw emotion and real-world immediacy that hamper it from sticking with an already outdated style of documentary filmmaking.
On its face, “The Fight” is built around four different cases the ACLU has taken on since Trump assumed office in January 2017 — the film’s opening voiceover follows Trump’s inauguration, setting him up as the film’s primary antagonist with the minimum of fuss. The cases all exemplify some of the more wrenching injustices inflicted on American citizens and hopeful immigrants since early 2017. There’s a case about abortion access, one involving the census question about citizenship, Gelernt’s family separation work, and the one challenging the transgender military ban.
The concept sounds solid in concept, but its execution leaves much to be imagined — or does it? Rigid structures don’t suit uneasy times, and while even three years ago a film that divided its stories was an illustrative way of telling a larger story, “The Fight” grapples with a narrative collapse that says almost as much about the current state of the world than the subjects it follows.
That’s not to say that the documentary’s many stories and subjects don’t have plenty to say — they do — but the steady dissolution of the film’s prescribed structure packs its own punch. When Steinberg and Kriegman first teamed up for their Anthony Weiner documentary (Despres also wrote and edited the political doc), the newly minted filmmaking duo were able to capitalize on strange serendipity: the film was initially designed to follow the disgraced politician as he clawed his way back into citizens’ good graces via a bid to be NYC’s next mayor, a great idea that made for even better filmmaking once still more charges of lewd behavior were leveled against him, all while cameras were rolling.
The trio is perhaps less nimble in their approach when it comes to “The Fight,” but what starts as a blandly divided documentary eventually finds its way to something inspiring, infuriating, and unbounded by old ideas. While the four-case structure can’t hold up for the entirety of the film’s running time, it does provide a telling window into the work the ACLU does, with the four cases framing some of the most pressing issues faced by the country at this current juncture. Bolstered by an assortment of engaging ACLU lawyers tasked with each case, from the charming Dale Ho and emotional Gelernt to the dogged Brigitte Amiri and the resolute Chase Strangio, “The Fight” finds a real human face for the work being done (one nitpick that is perhaps the result of legal entanglements: not enough time is spent with the majority of the lawyers’ clients).
Spanning January 2017 to as recently as this past summer, “The Fight” often has to contend with legal upheavals that extend beyond their already major legal battles, again upending easy narrative constraints. In the midst of watching the ACLU fight for the rights of immigrants, women, transgender people, and many other vulnerable groups, comes a necessary reminder: the ACLU defends the civil rights of all people. That includes the white supremacists who organized the 2017 “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville, VA, a gathering aided by the ACLU (who fought for the group’s First Amendment rights after they were denied a permit to assemble) that ultimately turned violent.
“The Fight” doesn’t shy away from the internal struggles of the group, and the friction created by upholding a complicated mission. (Such cases do nothing to stave back the massive amounts of hate mail the group gets, nodded to during a key segment in which the lawyers read off some of their latest mail and listen to a series of voicemails that illustrate how misunderstood their aims are.)
While “The Fight” often succeeds because of the strength of its access and the honesty of its subjects, its filmmakers do throw in some bits of fancy footwork. Vibrant animations illustrate closed courtroom scenes, and split-screens gussied-up, shaky pieces of on-the-ground footage. Most of those affectations fall away as the real-life drama ramps up. Most impressive, though, are the quieter moments in which Ho waits for a judgement, or Strangio talks through a case with his brother, or Gelernt grapples with the very real lives in his hands. The unfussy stuff, the human stuff, is what works best, both for “The Fight” and the very people it follows.
“The Fight” premiered in the U.S. Documentary Competition section of the 2020 Sundance Film Festival.