After the success of their 2016 film “Weiner,” Elyse Steinberg, Josh Friedman, and Eli Depres are back at the Sundance Film Festival with a new political documentary. Tracking four lawsuits brought against the Trump administration and the ACLU lawyers arguing the cases, “The Fight” is a notable, if erratic, depiction of the fight against Trump.
Beginning where all recent political documentaries must – at the inauguration of Donald Trump – “The Fight” quickly jumps to four major issues brought about by the administration. First, we meet Brigitte Amiri, who is representing a pregnant minor seeking an abortion in the custody of the Office of Refugee Resettlement. Then there’s Lee Gelernt, who is broadly working on family separation at the border. At the same time, Joshua Block and Chase Strangio are fighting against the transgender military ban. Rounding out the four threads is Dale Ho and his challenge to the citizenship question on the 2020 census.
By tracking so many parallel narratives, and incorporating the history and importance of the ACLU, “The Fight” often feels like a CliffNotes version of the organization’s fight with Trump. Much of the film is dedicated to the lawyers and the interactions that they have with their clients. This involves time spent writing briefs and, ultimately, arguing their cases. Brief detours are also taken to discuss other political changes, such as the appointment of Brett Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court.
“The Fight” takes on a lot of topics and moves at a hectic pace for a 96-minute feature. While the focus remains on the lawyers, by following four different lawsuits, “The Fight” is ultimately unable to give appropriate time to a single one. The filmmakers fail to color in the lives of the lawyers or the clients that lend their names to the lawsuits. Doubts and criticism are brought up in the peripheral and never fully explored. When Joshua Block questions whether, as a cisgendered man, he should be the one arguing for transgender rights, “The Fight” quickly pivots to a different topic.
Further, while the filmmakers are clearly on the ACLU’s side, they occasionally bring up criticism against the organization. Such instances, including the ACLU’s lawsuit to support a permit for the 2017 “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville, is mentioned only in passing. The repercussions of that lawsuit are discussed for what amounts to no more than a few minutes of screentime. How does the ACLU grapple with the loss of life at that rally and their connection to it?
When “The Fight” pushes past didacticism, and interrogates the underlying motives and people behind these lawsuits, the film gains clarity. A moment late in the movie follows Dale Ho as he prepares to present oral arguments to the Supreme Court in sneakers in his hotel room. He repeatedly botches his delivery, a quiet moment that humanizes the attorney. Later, the film lingers as he attempts to distract himself with work, while continually refreshing the Supreme Court page to find out their decision. When that decision is finally released, he frantically tries to read, looking for any indication of whether he won or lost. In these moments, “The Fight” shows the film it could’ve been if only it had slowed down.
This is not to say that “The Fight” is dull, just a bit scattershot in its approach. By using a highly structured format – the filmmakers often employ split-screen to follow multiple events simultaneously – the film takes on so much information that the filmmakers lose sight of the people that they are following. This makes “The Fight” the opposite of the group’s great previous film, “Weiner.” Why does Lee Gelernt put so much time into his work? How does Block grapple with his representation of a marginalized group? “The Fight”, in not even asking these questions, is ultimately an excellent primer for the type of work the ACLU performs. Still, the film is more of a curiosity, preaching to the already converted. [B-]