Josh Kriegman and Elyse Steinberg's 2016 documentary Weiner, on the rise and fall of disgraced congressman Anthony Weiner, will stand as one of the best records of the sorry states our political and media landscapes were getting in at the start of the last decade. No-one quite anticipated what was lurking around the corner. The pair's new film, which opens with the audio of the Trump inauguration, documents how it's been ever since - and the work of those tireless, overworked professionals attempting to provide some pushback. The Fight (co-directed with Eli Despres) takes us inside the American Civil Liberties Union, the oft-cited organisation relied upon to address the constitutional issues that keep coming up when you have a deranged dictator-wannabe as head of state. The filmmakers' methods remain much as they were in Weiner: a deft mix of fly-on-the-wall observation and third-party media coverage. Yet the stakes have been raised. Weiner was a silly boy who should have known better than to do what he did, and someone who'd banked enough personal and political capital to survive the storm his actions provoked. The actions of his political successors really are a matter of life and death; they're the difference between someone being allowed to stay on in what has traditionally been referred to as the land of the free - an idea already under threat from those hucksters who would put a price on everything, even liberty - and being snuffed out in the homelands to which they're being forcibly removed.
One way of looking at the ACLU's work would be as an attempt to provide clarity amid the chaos the incumbent President trades in. Kriegman, Steinberg and Despres - a formidable-sounding lawfirm-in-waiting - have taken this on board, and so The Fight sets out just four of the hundreds of cases the ACLU has taken on since 2016. We meet Jane, a pregnant migrant whose efforts to secure an abortion have been blocked by the current regime - the first sign that this President had his beady eyes on overturning the landmark Roe-vs-Wade ruling. We encounter Brock Stone, not a porn star as the name suggests, rather a trans officer directly affected by the President's proposed ban on transsexuals in the military. A third strand addresses the battles over voter suppression, this administration's efforts to strike names from the census; the fourth, headline strand, in part because it yields the most emotive footage, focuses on the class action suit the ACLU filed on behalf of those migrant parents who were separated from their children upon being taken into custody. From an editorial perspective, this lends The Fight variety: the filmmakers can cut back-and-forth between these battles, working towards a multiplicity of outcomes. Yet the approach also works towards a greater understanding of the current administration's methods, how Team Trump has sought to attack multiple branches of American democracy simultaneously, an artless carpetbombing of due process intended to overwhelm the body politic. Liberal hope is that said administration may have met its aggressive match in a virus doing much the same thing to the human body, but as anyone who's seen enough movies knows, monsters have a habit of coming back from the dead.
The advantage the ACLU have in this respect is competency, but the film leaves us in no doubt that its lawyers are badly overstretched, and operating within a system that's started to wobble from the weight of the burdens placed upon it. On screen, that manifests as a certain fraught quality. When one lawyer forgets to bring his phone charger to work, his mid-afternoon quest for a replacement loses him minutes that could make all the difference to a client at risk of being buried within that system. Yet the filmmakers equally hone in on cheerier workplace details, those flickers of (often bleak) humour that help these lawyers get through the longer, more trying days. One interviewee with experience of both notes that the difference between ACLU HQ and the Department of Justice is the number of piercings and tattoos visible; Lee Gelernt, the foursquare Deputy Director of the Union's Immigrants' Rights Project, muses that there aren't all that many people around he can talk sports with. If they're heroes, they're constantly observed testing themselves, calibrating that heroism for greater impact: what the film's really getting at, you sense, is a form of self-regulation lacking in their opponents. (These guys barely have time to Tweet.) It's most evident in a conversation the cis lawyer handling the trans case has with the (trans) colleague he wonders might be better suited to making the argument; it's there in the internal schism that opened up in the wake of Charlottesville, where some within the ACLU felt they'd gone too far in defending the right to free speech of those white supremacists who killed Heather Heyer. When you're defending liberty, how much is too much?
The film knows its audience: it's that progressive crowd who gathered to warm their hearts and hands around the documentary form in the post-9/11 heyday of Michael Moore, and who've remained steadfastly in place over the long, cold, dark winters of the fake-news era. We get precisely the least flattering clips of Trump, his officials and his media lackeys - though you could only call this selective editing if you weren't aware the filmmakers would have had many hours of these foot-in-mouth howlers to choose between. Yet The Fight doesn't quite have the same immediacy and impact Weiner did before it. Partly, that's a matter of access: a lot of relevant testimony in these cases was heard behind closed doors, so much of the information has to be conveyed secondhand. (We're offered animated reconstructions of the Supreme Court hearings, which can't match the electric drama of the great trial documentaries; the ACLU lawyers are obliged to spend more time on the phone - hence the charger snafu - than they do at the bar.) Nevertheless, the closing round of verdicts is moving: what Kriegman, Steinberg and Despres have brought back is footage that illustrates the difference individuals can still make, even at a moment when so much hope would appear lost. In an ideal world, you could show The Fight to a MAGA type, and they would come away with an admiration (however begrudging) for the lawyers' eloquence and work ethic, their commitment to law and order, and their faith in an idea of America where the little guy might still catch a break. But I'm aware this is 2020, and that ideals in any form are a distant horizon. What The Fight shows above all else is that simply getting the system to function - or, less simply, getting it to function as fairly as we might want - is mighty hard work in itself.
The Fight is now playing at London's Genesis Cinema, and streaming via Curzon, Dogwoof and Amazon Prime.