Movie review of “Mighty Ira,” Directed and Produced by Nico Perrino, Chris Maltby and Aaron Reese

Ira Glasser is well-known (indeed, fabled) in civil liberties circles as the long-time (1978-2001) Executive Director of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) during the period of its biggest growth spurt and most potent influence on the protection of freedom of speech and other civil liberties in America. He is now the subject of a recently released documentary sporting his prénom (“Mighty Ira”) in a context where one is tempted to associate him with the renowned “Mighty Joe Young” film. In both the 1998 and earlier 1949 versions of that film, the hero is a 15-feet-tall kindly gorilla, weighing 2,000 pounds, who comes to the rescue of those endangered by the cold, cruel world.

Yep, that’s also Mighty Ira, whom I’ve known personally throughout his years leading the national office of the ACLU, during which period I was an active Board member and one-time President of the ACLU of Massachusetts, the Bay State affiliate of the national organization. Indeed I know the creators of the movie – Nico Perrino, Aaron Reese and Chris Maltby—who are all staffers at the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) that is devoted to the protection of free speech and due process on college campuses. I co-founded FIRE in 1999 and still serve on its Board of Directors.

I realize, of course, that between my connections with ACLU and with Glasser, as well as with Perrino and his team at FIRE, I might not be considered sufficiently objective to review this movie. However, I don’t pretend to be neutral on the importance of civil liberties to the American nation, especially at the current perilous historical moment in which we find ourselves. And so, with this introduction, I will move onto the substance of “Mighty Ira.”


The documentary is a biographical narrative of the ACLU’s long-time executive director, Ira Glasser. But Glasser’s life and career serve merely as an appropriate vehicle for a larger exploration of the importance of free speech in a free society. The central theme and fundamental lesson of “Mighty Ira” is the function of freedom of speech in a nation, such as ours, that is blessed (some might say cursed, but that would be a misconception of the central role of freedom in the American experiment) with a First Amendment. This Amendment assures that even the most odious among us (with “odious” being the term that we apply to those we loathe, but who might view us as odious) the right to express themselves either orally, in writing, or by demonstrating or marching.

It was the freedom to march that caused a major flare-up back in the late 1970s, when members of the American Nazi Party, in uniform and bedecked with their decorative swastikas and stormtrooper boots, applied for a permit to march through the town of Skokie, Illinois. Skokie was actually not the marchers’ first choice of a parade venue. But while the surrounding cities and towns in Chicago ignored the Nazis’ application for a parade permit, Skokie had bothered to actually act on the request, demanding that the Nazis post a $350,000 insurance bond in order to get the permit. No insurance company would issue such a bond. And so, Skokie had in effect turned down the parade permit.

Skokie, it turns out, was an ironic locale for the Nazis’ parade. Its population consisted of a large number of survivors of the Nazis’ infamous death camps. Led by an energetic and vocal survivor, Ben Stern (still alive and featured in the movie at age 96), the town fathers and other residents of Skokie fought back; the last thing they needed or wanted was to have American Nazis marching through their streets lined with Holocaust survivors. Stern is interviewed for the documentary, and he clarifies that even though he was Glasser’s ideological opponent vis-à-vis the Nazi march, he likes Glasser personally. Stern made clear that if the Nazis did march, Stern and his fellow survivors would have launched a counter-demonstration – which of course, Glasser and the ACLU would have protected under the First Amendment.

To Glasser and the ACLU leadership, including David Goldberger, who headed the local Illinois chapter, freedom of speech is meaningless if it is not accorded across-the-board to all those along the ideological spectrum. The ACLU took its demand for the issuance of a parade permit without an onerous insurance bond requirement to the federal courts, where they prevailed in the Supreme Court. Ironically, once granted the permit, the Nazis never went through with the march. But the ACLU’s point had been made, and the precedent had been established by Glasser and his team of ACLU lawyers: The First Amendment protects even the most odious among us.

The Skokie case, while the central event depicted in “Mighty Ira,” is but one incident in Glasser’s career of fostering tolerance for the divergent views of others in a pluralistic and contentious society. The film spends a considerable amount of time and attention on the close friendship between Glasser and William F. Buckley, Jr., the acerbic conservative public intellectual, author and commentator, and Yale-educated founder of the conservative National Review magazine and host of Firing Line. The patrician Buckley seemed to be the polar opposite of the Brooklyn-born-and-bred brash liberal Glasser, and yet the two of them enjoyed a close and mutually respectful and wholly tolerant friendship until Buckley’s death in 2008. This friendship functions, whether by intent or simply by effect, as a leitmotif of the documentary’s underlying theme that in a free and tolerant society, where the First Amendment prevents suppression of minority views and where the emanations of the right of free speech promote tolerance, personal relationships can flourish that in other societies would likely be interdicted by tribalism and political hatreds and other forms of intolerance often leading to violence.

Glasser’s distinguished level of tolerance is partly explained by Perrino’s discussion of Glasser’s childhood. He was born and reared in the New York City borough of Brooklyn and rooted for the Brooklyn Dodgers baseball team (now the Los Angeles Dodgers), which was the first major league team to hire a Black player, the legendary Jackie Robinson, in 1947. Indeed, throughout the movie, Glasser wears his Brooklyn baseball jacket. (I was born and raised, for the first eleven years of my life, in the Bensonhurst section of Brooklyn, and I can attest to the importance of the Dodgers in the borough’s culture.) Throughout the film, the directors subtly and expertly weave the themes of place, time, and culture with the then-politics of the moment. It is hardly clear that the history of the ACLU, and the trajectory of the Skokie case, would have unfolded as they did were Ira Glasser not around in the right place and at the right time, and had he not been born and raised in Brooklyn. One realizes the importance of Brooklyn, of the Dodgers, and of Jackie Robinson, in establishing the culture that enabled – indeed, compelled – Glasser to come to the aid of the First Amendment via the vehicle of a sorry band of American Nazis.

As Glasser jokes to Jordan Hoffman, who interviewed him for The Times of Israel:

It was the only place [i.e., Ebbets Field, the stadium where the Dodgers played] where a 10-year-old like me could go to a ballgame and sit next to a 35-year-old Black guy drinking a beer. And we were rooting for the same team, on the same side, and if something good happened we would jump up and slap each other on the back. Affectionate physical contact in those years, 1947, it couldn’t have happened anywhere else in the country. I called it an integration of the soul. I sometimes joke that if I had been a New York Yankees fan, I would have turned out to be a racist.

Watching the documentary naturally raises in the viewer’s mind the question of how the national ACLU, today under different leadership, would react to a right-wing march. ACLU executive director Anthony Romero, who succeeded Glasser, is a very different leader – a self-described progressive whose fealty to an absolutist interpretation of the First Amendment differs from the liberal interpretation favored by Glasser. Glasser points out in the Jordan Hoffman interview that it is unclear whether the current national ACLU would take a case such as Skokie. He points out that the national ACLU office did not support the ACLU of Virginia in Charlottesville when the state ACLU supported the local police plan to separate the opposing camps of demonstrators “to assure they had the right to express themselves.” Glasser admits that “if Skokie came up today, [national ACLU] might not take [the case]. If you don’t have a strong ACLU defending the right to free speech, regardless of what that speech is, then you lose something that took 100 years to build. Having one more liberal-progressive organization out there is nice if you are a liberal or a progressive. But there are a lot of liberal-progressive organizations out there. There’s only one ACLU.”

“Mighty Ira” is as much a documentary about the essential First Amendment and the esteemed Ira Glasser as it is a tale of the decline of the national ACLU that began with Glasser’s retirement as that organization’s executive director. One has to thank Glasser and the filmmakers for giving us a documentary that is both a lesson in history and free speech law, as well as a warning that protection of the First Amendment is a long-term endeavor. The battle for free speech never ends.

(“Mighty Ira” can be watched through Angelika Film Center’s Virtual Cinema program. Ticket pre-orders are now available. The film will also be available to stream on iTunes, Amazon, and Google Play on Oct. 23 and will be on DVD and Blu-ray on Oct. 27.)

The author thanks Emily Nayyer for her editing assistance.