Ed. Note: Our intrepid TV and Movie Critic, Harris County Chief Public Defender Alex Bunin, reviews the new movie by FIRE, the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, “Mighty Ira,” which is now available in virtual cinema through Angelika Film Center through Oct. 22. On Oct. 23, it will be available to stream on Amazon (free on Prime), iTunes, and Google Play and on Oct. 27, it will be available on DVD and Blu-ray.
I just previewed the new FIRE documentary about Ira Glasser, entitled “Mighty Ira.” Unless, like me, you were on a local American Civil Liberties Union board in the 1980s, you might be thinking, Ira who? Ira Glasser was the national executive director of ACLU from 1978 until 2001, and he will be very upset if you didn’t know that.
Let me get compliments out of the way so I can get down to my specialty – writing what is wrong with the film or show I was asked to review. It is a very competent piece of filmmaking and editing. It avoids the Ken Burns’ style of the droning narrator (poor Peter Coyote) and the talking heads of academia. It also has a decent soundtrack. Historically, it is an accurate description of public square free speech issues in the United States from the 1950’s until today.
However, the film reminds me a bit of “Zelig,” Woody Allen’s cinematic innovation of placing a character (played by himself) into filmed historic events. For instance, much of the film describes the ACLU’s involvement in getting a permit for American Nazis to hold a 1978 demonstration in Skokie, Illinois, a community with a large Jewish population consisting of many Holocaust survivors. Only during a radio interview does Glasser admit he was not yet running the ACLU when the lawsuit was first filed.
There appears an impressive association with Robert Kennedy in the 1960’s. Glasser wrote the New York Senator a letter. In response, Glasser was invited to Washington to meet with him. Kennedy allegedly extolled the value of the ACLU and Glasser later joined the New York affiliate. However, there is no mention of any continued association between the two men. It just becomes a segue for clips surrounding the assassinations of Martin Luther King and RFK. To some degree, this is necessary context, but every once in a while you wonder where the protagonist has gone.
The real action sequences for Glasser are on the PBS show “Firing Line” and “The Phil Donahue Show.” The former, hosted by conservative icon William F. Buckley, were essentially debates between Buckley and his guest. Donahue’s show was more friendly to civil libertarians. In both cases, Glasser did much to get the ACLU message out. He was also able to successfully market George H.W. Bush’s pejorative, “card-carrying member of the ACLU.”
About 20 minutes of the total 98 are about baseball. In particular, old men reminisce about the Brooklyn Dodgers. Rooting for Jackie Robinson was the 1950’s equivalent of being “woke.” Even William Buckley is dragged to a Mets game on the subway. This is described as a “victory.”
My main problem with the film is what it does not discuss. One person refers to the ACLU before Glasser as a “mom and pop” operation. Another way of looking at that change is that local chapters began to be phased out and ACLU became more centralized. Part of the reason was fundraising. The advent of answering machines made getting donations more difficult. Having fewer offices reduced costs. However, it also meant litigation decisions were taken away from local offices.
I was on the board of the Greater Houston Chapter of the ACLU in the late 1980’s and I also acted as a participating attorney on several cases. During my time on the board, the chapter won two major precedents in the U.S. Supreme Court. City of Houston v. Raymond Wayne Hill, 482 U.S. 451 (1987) and Rankin v. McPherson, 483 U.S. 378 (1987). That litigation independence ended when the national office, headed by Glasser, forced local decision-making to go to its then-moribund Austin affiliate.
The film also only deals with what I call public square advocacy. No mention is made of the “money is speech and corporations are persons” policies of ACLU that ultimately led to Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission, 558 U.S. 310 (2010). We are given the man and the organization without flaws. Glasser is not without successes, but the title is the best metaphor. A colleague of Glasser wrote a parody of “Casey at the Bat” about him. It closes with the line, “Mighty Ira knocked one out.” However, the actual Casey did not fare so well.