The image of the lone lawyer fighting against a system of bureaucratic inaction, entrenched corruption, or immoral legality is a constant in our pop culture landscape. The shadow of Harper Lee’s Atticus Finch looms large, helping fuel our romanticized idea of the type of person who would take a stand when no one else would. The Fight, a documentary that follows five lawyers working for the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) during the presidency of Donald J. Trump, leans into that idealization from the very beginning: “Goliath, meet David” is the tagline printed on the film’s poster. Snappily edited, with a visual style reminiscent of Steven Soderbergh’s modular design, The Fight tells viewers of a certain political perspective what they want to hear (that Trump is bad). That makes for galvanizing viewing, but The Fight never risks alienating its assumed audience—and declines from fully exploring the more complicated aspects of the ACLU’s legacy as a result.
As a portrait of the ACLU, The Fight is nearly exclusively concerned with the impact of Trump and his administration’s tendency to, as one of the lawyers here describes it, announce a particularly heinous policy, then walk it incrementally back to a compromise of awfulness that is still more shocking than you would ever expect. The ACLU was created in 1920, but the documentary puts aside a focus on history to instead highlight how the organization is currently and primarily, in one way or another, responding to the 45th president’s words or actions. Directors Elyse Steinberg, Josh Kriegman, and Eli Despres begin their documentary by playing audio of Trump’s 2017 inauguration over the opening credits, thrusting viewers directly into the United States under his reign.
That focus gives the documentary recognizable urgency: These events are happening right now. Of the many cases the ACLU is bringing against the Trump White House, The Fight pinpoints four involving abortion rights, immigrant rights, LGBTQ+ rights, and voting rights, and presents the lawyers responsible for arguing the ACLU’s position. Inside the organization’s New York City headquarters—festooned with a gigantic portrait of Lady Liberty—the lawyers are introduced. Brigitte Amiri, with numerous foot-tall stacks of paper and files on her desk, is representing a 17-year-old Jane Doe being held by the Office Of Refugee Resettlement. ORR Director Scott Lloyd, who has gone on religiously themed TV programs to speak about the importance of protecting life, is denying Doe’s request for an abortion—her Constitutional right under Roe V. Wade. Lee Gelernt, as reliant on cans of fizzy drinks as he is absentminded about charging his cell phone, is working against Trump’s Muslim travel ban and also representing families who have been separated at the border by U.S. officials. Criss-crossing the country to meet clients to join his suit, Gelernt is noticeably, increasingly worn down as The Fight progresses. At one point after walking out of a detention facility, he can’t even form a sentence to describe the trauma his client is feeling; he just walks away from the filmmakers.
Similarly burdened by the weight of their work are Chase Strangio and Joshua Block, tasked with representing U.S. Navy Petty Officer First Class Brock Stone in a case against Trump’s ban on transgender personnel serving in the military. Block speaks about the conflicted feelings he has as a cis man arguing the case in court, but Strangio, a trans man, refuses to take on that responsibility, arguing that he’s not ready. (There must be a whole backstory to the smile Strangio gives the camera when he says that his time at the ACLU has been spent “train[ing] the ACLU on what it means to be trans” rather than preparing for arguments of this importance, and it’s to the detriment of the documentary that the film doesn’t wonder whether Strangio is alluding to feelings of tokenism inside the organization itself.) The stress on voting rights lawyer Dale Ho is also apparent as he prepares to challenge the Census Bureau’s proposed citizenship question before the Supreme Court. The magnitude of the case isn’t lost on Ho, who is shown in numerous hotel rooms practicing his arguments practically obsessively, recording himself saying “Mr. Chief Justice, and may it please the Court” and “arbitrary and capricious” over and over again until he gets the tone just right.
“I don’t know” is his answer when the filmmakers ask if he think he’s going to win, and The Fight is at its best when it makes clear the normalcy of these people. Amiri indulges in “train wine” when she learns of significant progress in Jane Doe’s case. Gelernt admits he doesn’t know how to use the copiers in the ACLU building. Strangio and his brother joke about their conservative father selling Strangio’s case files to Breitbart. Dale effortlessly juggles after a persistent request from his children. The Fight indulges often in the “lawyers as heroes” mythology, but equally informative are those mundane moments, or even some uncomfortable ones. Bombarded by calls on his office phone and with his cell phone out of power, Gelernt hovers at the desk of a younger female colleague at the ACLU, coming just this close to a microaggression moment involving her help with a tech issue. The flip side of this scene, which is intended to show how passionate Gelernt is about being available to his clients, is that he might not be a very nice colleague. Those glimpses into who these lawyers are outside of their cases, and how they might work as professional or romantic partners, make these people more than just flatly admirable.
It’s disappointing, then, that The Fight lacks similar depth when considering the work of the ACLU as a whole. A brief section of the documentary acknowledges that the ACLU has also represented well-known racist figures like Milo Yiannopoulos; in a split-screen comparison, Steinberg, Kriegman, and Despres show footage of Nazi sympathizers in uniform in Skokie, Illinois, in 1977, and the deadly violence white supremacists committed in Charlottesville, Virginia, in 2017. The ACLU defended them both, and there’s a sort of flat, party-line description of these choices as integral to upholding the Constitutional right to free speech. Technically, that’s true, but The Fight doesn’t probe further at how these decisions reverberate throughout the ACLU staff. The only person speaking on the record against the ACLU’s support of Unite The Right is Deputy Legal Director Jeffery Robinson, who says “I disagree with the decision” and then disappears from the rest of The Fight.
It’s hard not to think about other dissenting opinions absent from the film. Investigation into fissures within the ACLU, or time spent with the lawyers who represent the likes of Yiannopoulos, would have deviated from the unwaveringly liberal narrative of The Fight, but it might also have served the film in terms of expanding the scope to include other threats to the Constitution that aren’t explicitly Trump-related. Without additional perspective, The Fight feels at its best inspirational and its worst superficial, a dichotomy embodied by how Steinberg, Kriegman, and Despres load their documentary with footage from MSNBC, CNN, Fox News, NBC, CBS, and various local TV stations, making the most out of the 24-hour news cycle to remind us of the varying ways information is spun. MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow blinks back tears when sharing a photograph of children detained in a border facility, laid out on thin cots and protected only by Mylar blankets; in contrast, Fox News’s Brian Kilmeade yells, “These aren’t our kids!” The Fight uses these comparisons over and over to cement its own positions, relying on collective outrage for emotional engagement. It’s an effective tactic, but a repetitive one—there’s no persuasion in The Fight, just an echoing of ideology.