"The Fight," Elyse Steinberg, Josh Kriegman and Eli Despress' documentary about the American Civil Liberties Union, opens with the inauguration of Donald Trump. His oath rings out like an opening salvo. In just seven days, protests will be amassed at JFK Airport in New York where ACLU attorneys rush to counter the Trump's administration's travel ban from seven Muslim-majority nations.
"The Fight," which debuts on-demand Friday, July 31, works from that moment forward, trying to keep pace with the ACLU in a ceaseless battle over civil rights.
"The Fight," timed to the 100th anniversary of the ACLU, begins with a warm impression of the ACLU and concludes with one. It is, some would say, a glossy advertisement for the historic nonprofit organization, even if the film, like its characters, doesn't shy away from the divisive role that the ACLU plays in American life for some. Their attorneys dutifully read their own hate mail. "Obviously most of you are pedophiles," says one caller.
But just as in "Weiner," the filmmakers have a gift for capturing colorful personalities in high-pressure political environments. Our characters here include the perpetually rumpled Lee Gelernt, who's representing an immigrant woman separated for months from her young daughter; Brigitte Amiri, who's defending a teenage immigrant woman who, after being raped, is barred from an abortion in Texas; and Dale Ho, a fastidious lawyer arguing against a citizenship question on the U.S. census.
Sometimes, "The Fight" could pry more closely. When the ACLU supported the First Amendment rights of white supremacist marchers in Charlottesville, Virginia, it prompted soul-searching throughout the ACLU. Here, legal director David Cole makes the case: "It's not a right for people you agree with. It's a right for everybody."
What most vividly comes across in "The Fight" is the never-ending nature of freedom and democracy. No case is ever really over; there are always more challenges to come, more legal battles to fight. And as tempting, in a summer without superheroes, to think of the courtroom warriors as saviors, it's not a role they embrace. They can do only so much to plug all the holes in a vessel always springing leaks. "It's not going to be lawyers in courts," says Ho. "It's going to be people who turn this ship around."
"The Fight" is rated PG-13 for strong language, thematic material and brief violence. Three and a half stars out of four.