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The Fight: The collateral damage of free speech


  • By The Newnan Times-Herald
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  • Jul. 24, 2020 - 2:58 PM

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The Fight: The collateral damage of free speech

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Review By: Jonathan W. Hickman

“The Fight,” reveals the price of free speech—the good and the bad.

The vérité documentary filmmakers behind the eye-opening 2016 movie “Weiner” were granted unprecedented access to the offices and inner workings of the American Civil Liberties Union (the “ACLU”) to document its efforts to push back against Trump administration policies. The resulting feature, “The Fight,” is a fascinating legal procedural less concerned with the details of the cases featured and more interested in showing the process behind the scenes.

But as much as the film feels like a moving tribute to the ACLU and its enthusiastic staff, the filmmakers (Elyse Steinberg, Josh Kriegman, and Eli Depres) don’t shy away from the possible collateral damage associated with the organization’s core mission. And that’s what’s buried in “The Fight’s” second act—the tragedy of Charlottesville in 2017. More on that later.

“The Fight” takes a fly-on-wall approach to tell the story of a handful of dedicated attorneys and the causes that drive them. The four areas focused on are abortion rights, immigration rights, LGBT rights, and voting rights. We see the legal teams as they go about their frenzied days, spending time behind computer screens, taking trains, preparing oral arguments in hotel rooms, and relaxing at home with their families.

We meet five lawyers.

Attorney Brigitte Amiri is the director of the organization’s Reproductive Freedom Project. She is lead counsel on a case that challenges the Trump administration’s ban on abortion for unaccompanied immigrant minors.

Joshua Block is the senior staff attorney for the ACLU’s Lesbian Gay Bisexual Transgender & HIV Projects. His case seeks to strike down President Trump’s ban on transgender people serving in the military. His co-counsel is the charismatic young lawyer and transgender activist Chase Strangio.

Veteran attorney Lee Gelernt, the deputy director of the Immigration Rights Project, is shown handling several cases involving Administration policies. In court, he challenges the controversial Muslim ban and the practice of family separation.

One of Gelernt’s frequent television appearances is captured in realtime, as he learns of a crushing loss in one of his most high-profile cases. This scene is masterful. Media watchers will want to pay close attention to how he carefully measures his reaction, first attempting in mere minutes to educate himself and keep his emotions in check. This scene is really what vérité filmmaking is all about.

The final attorney featured is Dale Ho, the director of the Voting Rights Project. Ho’s efforts in the film challenge the inclusion of the citizenship question on the Census. We travel with him as he spends time in various towns and hotel rooms regularly practicing and researching. And Ho allows the cameras into his apartment, where we meet his wife and children.

“The Fight” is a story told exclusively from one side in various legal disputes. Pitching the lawyers as David against Goliath works mainly because Goliath, or the government, is rarely pictured in the film. Other than clips from a video deposition, at no time, are the cameras trained on lawyers from the Justice Department.

No government lawyers or officials would likely go on camera, but the filmmaking team makes little effort to dive into the legal claims and defenses. This lack of context may frustrate some viewers. Conservative audiences, who object philosophically to the ACLU, will find “The Fight” educational.

If I were a government lawyer, I’d certainly want to watch this film. And as Oscar-nominated filmmaker Joe Berlinger learned after making his movie “Crude,” documentary footage shot (including, in that case, some 600 hours of outtakes) isn’t necessarily privileged from the eyes of opposing forces. But whether you like or despise the ACLU, “The Fight” is an undeniably informative and moving portrait.

What jumped out at me while watching this film was a sequence covering the deadly events in Charlottesville, Virginia, in 2017. The ACLU was instrumental in procuring a permit for the Unite the Right rally. It was lawyers from the ACLU who filed a lawsuit that resulted in an injunction allowing the white supremacist followers to march.

Cameras roll, showing the depressed ACLU staff watching news footage of the deadly violence. The unintended consequences of free speech are on full display, and the lawyers don’t feel good about fulfilling their core mission in that circumstance. The good and the bad, it's a genuine American dilemma.

“The Fight” makes its debut on streaming platforms everywhere on July 31st.

***

A RottenTomatoes.com Tomatometer-approved critic, Jonathan W. Hickman is also an entertainment lawyer, college professor, novelist, and filmmaker. He’s a member of the Atlanta Film Critics Circle, The Southeastern Film Critics Association, and the Georgia Film Critics Association. For more information about Jonathan visit: FilmProductionLaw.com or DailyFIlmFix.com