"The Good Fight" looks like another conventional documentary -- talking heads spliced to old newsreel footage, with a narrator (inevitably, Studs Terkel) droning in the background.
Which is just the kind of innocuous tone you'd want for a whitewash. "The Good Fight" is about the Abraham Lincoln Brigade, a group of 3,200 Americans who, in the face of official neutrality, traveled to Spain to fight for the Republic against Franco's Fascists. Franco was aided and supplied by the Nazis and Italians; the Republic fell.
According to the documentary, this effort was laudable -- "the good fight" -- and inasmuch as it was an early (if abortive) blow against fascism, it was. What's missing is the other half of the story. All recruits of the Lincoln Brigade had to be approved by the Communist Party, and many were Stalinists who went to Spain as much to toe the party line as to defend democracy. When they ran out of food, the Lincolns started shooting dissidents to stem the tide of desertion. The International Brigade, of which the Lincolns were a part, assassinated Spanish Trotskyites and anarchists in a mass execution in Barcelona.
But for "The Good Fight," the Lincolns were just a bunch of lovable idealists and adventurers. They crow their old war songs a cappella. They grumble like any grunts about the food and the lice and the lack of hot water (two hot showers, remembers one, in a year and a half). They make fun of their superiors -- "most of the training," remembers one, "was speeches." And there's a wonderfully human moment when Milt Wolff, who was the 23-year-old commander of the Brigade, admits that he had to lie to his mom to go overseas (his cover was blown when a photograph of him and Ernest Hemingway appeared in the local paper).
If "The Good Fight" glamorizes the Lincolns and their cause, it doesn't glamorize war. One newsreel clip shows an amputee having the bandage removed from his stump. And one of the documentary's subjects, Ed Balchowsky, plays the piano with one hand (he lost his right arm in Spain). "That stinking rottenness, tomorrow, is you," is one Lincoln's view of encountering a corpse. "That's scared."
The narration is uniformly awful, filled with potted history and misty-eyed sentimentality. The movie's low point comes when an off-screen reader, the unmistakably un-Spanish Colleen Dewhurst, gravels out a speech by La Pasionaria, the Spanish Communist orator. Who was that masked woman?
But a movie like "The Good Fight" depends on its narrators, who will indeed charm those unruffled by half-truths. And their half of the truth is, after all, compelling -- they may have been taking orders from Moscow, but they also just wanted to shoot some fascists. At a time when not risking their lives seems to be the only thing people on the left believe in, it's refreshing to listen to these codgers who fought because, for them, risking your life was what it meant to believe in something.
The Good Fight, at the Inner Circle, is not rated; it contains some graphic scenes of wartime violence and some profanity.