|SEA OF SHADOWSTHE FIGHT|
Near the end of Elyse Steinberg, Josh Kriegman, and Eli Despres’ “The Fight,” one of the documentary’s central subjects, ACLU deputy director Lee Gelernt, is preparing for a quick hit on NBC News. The lawyer, best known for his work for immigrants’ rights, is minutes away from a live appearance discussing the state of the ACLU’s lawsuit against the government for its family separation policies. As the clock ticks down, a breaking news alert diverts everyone’s attention elsewhere: to the latest ruling in another ACLU-involved case, this one involving President Trump’s transgender military ban. Gelernt is forced to pivot, preparing talking points and official reactions before he’s thrust onto live television to sound off on yet another one of the over 100 lawsuits the American Civil Liberties Union has filed since Trump took office. It’s perhaps the most illustrative moment in the latest film from the trio behind “Weiner,” filled with raw emotion and real-world immediacy that hamper it from sticking with an already outdated style of documentary filmmaking.
On its face, “The Fight” is built around four different cases the ACLU has taken on since Trump assumed office in January 2017 — the film’s opening voiceover follows Trump’s inauguration, setting him up as the film’s primary antagonist with the minimum of fuss. The cases all exemplify some of the more wrenching injustices inflicted on American citizens and hopeful immigrants since early 2017. There’s a case about abortion access, one involving the census question about citizenship, Gelernt’s family separation work, and the one challenging the transgender military ban. The concept sounds solid in concept, but its execution leaves much to be imagined — or does it? Rigid structures don’t suit uneasy times, and while even three years ago a film that divided its stories was an illustrative way of telling a larger story, “The Fight” grapples with a narrative collapse that says almost as much about the current state of the world than the subjects it follows.
That’s not to say that the documentary’s many stories and subjects don’t have plenty to say — they do — but the steady dissolution of the film’s prescribed structure packs its own punch. When Steinberg and Kriegman first teamed up for their Anthony Weiner documentary Despres also wrote and edited the political doc, the newly minted filmmaking duo were able to capitalize on strange serendipity: the film was initially designed to follow the disgraced politician as he clawed his way back into citizens’ good graces via a bid to be NYC’s next mayor, a great idea that made for even better filmmaking once still more charges of lewd behavior were leveled against him, all while cameras were...