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Review: In it to win it, the lawyers of the ACLU never give up ‘The Fight’

Joshua Block, left, and Chase Strangio in the documentary "The Fight."
Joshua Block, left, and Chase Strangio in the documentary “The Fight.”.

(Magnolia Pictures)

This summer there aren’t any superhero movies coming out (they’ve all been postponed), but there is one film this season that features real-life heroes. The filmmaking team behind the riveting political doc “Weiner” — Josh Kriegman, Elyse Steinberg and Eli B. Despres — have made the documentary “The Fight,” which follows a group of crusading American Civil Liberties Union lawyers as they defend some of the bedrock protections under attack from the Trump administration.

This lively and fast-paced doc opens with a rapid-fire split-screen montage that introduces the ACLU’s 100-year history of defending civil liberties and introduces four specific cases of the hundreds the organization has brought against the Trump administration, regarding immigrants’ rights, reproductive rights, voting rights and LGBTQ rights. The filmmakers, as well as editors Kim Roberts and Greg Finton (Despres also edited) do a Herculean job of weaving together a comprehensive patchwork narrative, as the ACLU jabs and parries with the administration and the courts on each issue.

The four cases are Garza v. Hargan, in which a teenage refugee was denied access to an abortion by the Office of Refugee Resettlement; Stone v. Trump, the controversial transgender military ban; Department of Commerce v. New York, about the citizenship question on the 2020 Census; and Ms. L. v. ICE, an asylum-seekers family separation lawsuit.

The filmmakers also sketch humane portraits of each case’s tireless lawyers, who are almost constantly in motion. Immigration rights lawyer Lee Gelernt seems to run entirely on Diet Coke, adrenaline and many, many phone chargers; Dale Ho, director of the ACLU’s voting rights project, is a charming, smiley man whom we get to see practice his remarks for the Supreme Court over and over; Brigitte Amiri, a dedicated and passionate defender of Roe v. Wade, writes briefs at midnight and enjoys well-earned train wine after a win; and Chase Strangio, a dedicated working parent, taking on the transgender military ban with Josh Block.

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It’s the fight that keeps them going: the hateful invective sent their way via postcards, emails, Facebook messages and voicemails only fans the flames of the fire that drives them.

Although “The Fight” is jam-packed with ups, downs, wins, losses, injunctions, stays, hearings and Trump speeches, the film is remarkably detailed and careful, and in fact, it reckons with the ACLU’s dedication to defending civil liberties for all, not just the people we agree with. They’ve defended far-right and alt-right groups, radical Muslims and Nazis from Skokie, Ill. But their defense of the “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville, Va., where Heather Heyer was murdered by white supremacist James Fields Jr., weighs heavy on many in the organization, who try to understand if there are limits to defending free speech, at least for them.

In this film, and in life, it often feels like the lawyers of the organization are the only ones standing in the way of the Trump administration’s policies, many capriciously intended not only to strip human rights but to bully and intimidate the American public. They are the real heroes of this era, battling in court after court, armed with tote bags of documents, caffeine and a deeply unwavering and humanitarian sense of justice. But as Ho put it so frankly, lawyers and courts aren’t going to change the world; people are. And it’s up to us to do it.

Katie Walsh is a Tribune News Service film critic.

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‘The Fight'

Rated: PG-13, for strong language, thematic material and brief violence.

Running time: 1 hour 31 minutes

Playing: Available July 31 on digital and VOD


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