‘The Fight’ portrays ACLU’s legal battles against Trump with compelling humanity

the fight film review
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Grade: 3.5/5.0

It often feels like the narrative of American politics is accelerating, becoming ever harder to keep up with. Even the impeachment trial of Donald Trump, for example, is recalled with hazy recollection, though it was the most salient topic in politics circa January of this year. 

This exponential pace of political happenings complicates the goals of “The Fight.” Co-directed by longtime collaborators Josh Kriegman, Elyse Steinberg and Eli Despres, the documentary is an undeniably ambitious project, following several American Civil Liberties Union, or ACLU, lawyers each tasked with spearheading one of the organization’s many civil liberties lawsuits against the Trump administration. “The Fight” necessarily plays with time: With each case playing out over many months involving a massive number of parties and waning in mainstream news cycles, it would be a challenge to build a satisfying narrative out of any singular one of these cases. And yet, “The Fight” does so with four.

Its success lies in its tight pacing and masterful pathos. To say that the film is emotional would be an understatement: Even from its opening sequence — a tense, vivid portrait of the legal and emotional chaos brought about by Trump’s 2017 executive travel ban — the film knows how to tug heartstrings and demand attention. Likewise, the film arranges the events of its four storylines in parallel, creating a startlingly effective snowball of investment. 

One standout sequence arranges the four sets of leading lawyers awaiting to learn the Supreme Court’s ruling on each of their cases. While one anxiously dissects the legalese of the Supreme Court’s majority opinion, another frantically searches for an outlet in a crowded Starbucks to charge his dying laptop minutes before its decision is announced. Though politically engaged audiences may hazily recall how each of these stories end, “The Fight” brings a novel humanity and urgency to these landmark cases. 

This works in tandem with how much the film dedicates to getting to know each of its leads: It would’ve been rather easy to neglect their personalities to focus on their work, but “The Fight” carves out plenty of screentime to spend here. By the end of the film, one not only understands the legal processes and drama of these cases, but also has a sense for the people behind them — their idiosyncrasies, their values and their personal investment in the causes they champion.

But in order to make room for these developments while also telling four complete and parallel stories, some compromises do have to be made. For one, while its arrangement as a documentary is something to marvel, it feels incredibly conventional in other regards. 

There is very little in the way of memorable moments of filmmaking; in fact, outside of editing, the film makes few interesting or compelling artistic choices. None of this discredits “The Fight” as a piece of rhetoric, but it certainly holds it back from greatness as a film. With a narrative so effective and pacing so calculated, it’s a shame that there is little in the way of a unified or interesting aesthetic to make the documentary’s message stick. 

The film’s personal scale also inadvertently strips it of its ability to critique the ACLU as a whole. The most striking example of this is its handling of the ACLU’s defense of prominent white nationalists in the 2017 Charlottesville rallies: The film tries to address this, but only gives its sympathetic leads space to comment on the topic. “The Fight” thus comes off as somewhat apologetic, exaggerating the voices of this “new guard” of the organization, while neglecting that the ACLU at large maintains its most controversial stances. 

Perhaps these issues keep “The Fight” from reaching its fullest potential, but that’s not to say that the film isn’t incredibly important. Though its subject matter may feel resolved, it is through its personal approach that “The Fight” revitalizes the still-relevant topics it tackles. “The Fight” captures an ACLU at its best: Even though it falls in and out of limelight and stirs occasional controversy, there’s a sense of personal pride behind the organization’s work that often goes unrecognized. And if nothing else, “The Fight” takes the same sense of pride in capturing it on film. 

Olive Grimes covers film. Contact them at [email protected]. Tweet them at @ogrimes5.