The Fight

***1/2

Reviewed by: Jane Fae

The Fight
"An eye-opener of a documentary."

Wow! I thought I was on top of the (bad) news from the USA in respect of civil liberties. Then I watched The Fight and I realised that my appreciation of what was going on at a distance did no more than scratch the surface. Since I suspect I am far from alone in my ignorance of what is going on “over there”, I am going to recommend The Fight, from the off, as worthy catch up.

This film, from directors Elyse Steinberg, Josh Kriegman, and Eli Despres, is a nicely assembled documentary insight into the work of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU). Many reviews tend to use the word “rollercoaster” in its description of it. They are far from wrong.

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On the surface, this documentary follows the activities of leading ACLU lawyers responding to the edicts of US President Donald Trump: on voting rights, abortion rights, trans rights, free speech, immigration. I may have missed one or two. Nonetheless, the scope is broad and reminds you very quickly of the disparate stories you have been seeing in the news over the past four years. It brings them together and distils them into one concentrated dose.

Confronted with the enormity of the Trumpian project, you may, like me, have a number of thoughts. First is the breadth of what he is trying to do - just how calculated are his attacks on established rights. In small news bites it is easy to miss the bigger picture. In one early speech, for instance, he boasts how he is the first pro-life president, with a pro-life veep backed by plentiful pro-life politicians in congress and governors’ mansions across the country.

Also, intriguingly, footage from Trump speeches is at odds with the image we have outside the US. He comes across as far more effective, polished than we are used to seeing.

Second, we see the strength of opposition to him. Because while he wins some victories, this documentary shows him losing more often than winning. The trans issue, sadly, is one he has won – for now.

A film focusing just on the legal stuff would be dry indeed (even for a fan of legal journalism like me). What works well is the way it delves into the personal lives of the ACLU lawyers - their homes, their families and their personal quirks. There’s the toddler pulling a computer off the desk while a parent speaks to potential parties to a lawsuit against Trump. There’s the tour of the ACLU offices, providing a human face to those working there. There’s the tech-challenged lawyer, unable to charge his phone, and who doesn’t know how to work the office copiers.

There are insights, as one lawyer explains that you don’t bother giving the real argument before the Supreme Court, because conservative judges dislike hearing that people “intend to discriminate”.

There is also a more disturbing human side. The young mother overcome by grief as she is finally reunited with her child. They have been separated for months, forcibly, by immigration officials. The news anchor who holds back tears as she receives breaking news about conditions in which immigrant children are held.

Darker: we see the immigration official grilled as to his views on abortion and wriggling under questioning as to why a woman in his custody was prevented from having an abortion. Later, the same official turns up on a Christian pro-choice channel with ear-to-ear smile explaining his fundamentalist anti-abortion beliefs that somehow he could not remember in court.

Darker still is the news footage from Charlottesville. The ACLU took some criticism for upholding the right of white supremacists to march. Though they did not endorse the subsequent alt-right violence. Those of a squeamish disposition may wish to look away during this part, as it includes footage of the moment when a car deliberately rams into demonstrators.

I’d not seen that moment before and was shocked at the violence of it. Trigger warning for those who would rather not see actual violence on screen.

It was not the point of this documentary, but after that segment I came away understanding that, yes, America has a Nazi problem. This is measured not just in white supremacists prepared to wear Nazi regalia and march in military formation on the streets. It is also a function of the numbers of petty officials prepared to “follow orders”, no matter how much harm those orders cause.

This is an eye-opener of a documentary, an interesting watch, informative, in parts shocking. If you care about civil liberties, you, too, will want to see this.

Reviewed on: 30 Jul 2020
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The Fight packshot
Inside the ACLU, a team of scrappy lawyers battle Trump’s historic assault on civil liberties.

Director: Elyse Steinberg, Josh Kriegmanm Eli B Despres

Year: 2020

Runtime: 96 minutes

BBFC: 15 - Age Restricted

Country: US

Festivals:

Sundance 2020

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If you like this, try:

RBG
Taking Liberties