Film Review: RBG

A yummy cinematic profile of Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, 'RBG' is a satisfyingly thorough portrait of the phenomenal octogenarian who has become a popular cultural icon among Millennials.
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An extremely satisfying biographical documentary about Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, RBG is a skillfully crafted cinematic profile that leaves you feeling as though you’ve really gotten to know Ginsburg—what she cares about, why she’s important, where she came from and how she spends her days. Created by filmmakers Betsy West and Julie Cohen, the documentary provocatively opens with a barrage of insultingly negative comments about Ginsburg made by well-known male conservatives. But the compelling evidence that follows—a linear tracing of the 84-year-old’s life from her childhood in Brooklyn to her current status as a revered cultural icon among Millennials—shows Ginsburg to be such an extraordinarily accomplished, imaginative, level-headed and lovely-mannered person that her detractors end up sounding like fools. While it’s wise to be suspicious of a thoroughly positive portrait of any individual, in the case of Notorious RBG (as she is known among her young fans) I doubt anyone could have made a less adoring, and still truthful, film about her.

The powerful choice to pack the documentary with big, full-screen close-ups of Ginsburg’s face makes us feel we’re right there with her, sharing her perspective and her experiences. Though she’s a diminutive, soft-spoken woman in reality, Ginsburg’s grand onscreen presence suggests her historical importance and underlines her heroic qualities as we see her working out at the gym with impressive discipline, explaining her groundbreaking work as a lawyer fighting for women’s rights, exhibiting her ravishing collection of feminine white collars that she wears with her black justice’s robe (which had been designed to go with men’s shirts and ties), and sharing her personal life story—an unusual break from tradition—at her Supreme Court confirmation hearing.

That hearing loosely serves as the film’s scaffolding device, with Ginsburg introducing particular characters or key events from her life, which are then elaborated upon through archival footage and commentary from family members or prominent political figures, including Gloria Steinem and Bill Clinton, the President who appointed Ginsburg to the Supreme Court in 1993. Most interesting is the film’s explicit coverage of Ginsburg’s pioneering achievements in the 1970s, when her consciousness-raising arguments before the Supreme Court resulted in pivotal rulings against legal discrimination on the basis of sex.

Yet what emerges as most remarkable about Ginsburg is her enormous capacity for work. We learn that she would toil in the office every evening until about 7 p.m., when her husband, tax attorney Marty Ginsburg (who died in 2010), would telephone and remind her it was time to come home for dinner. He would phone again several more times until, around 9 p.m., she would finally come home and eat. Then, after dinner, she would work at home until the wee hours of the morning. When she and Marty were students at Harvard Law School, he suffered a bout with cancer, during which time she did his as well as her own schoolwork while also taking care of their 14-month-old son and averaging about two hours of sleep a night.

However, as the film entertainingly reveals, Ginsburg’s life was never devoid of fun or leisure. She describes Marty as “the most wonderful thing that ever happened to me,” and we see him talking about his wife with the laugh-inducing flair of a professional standup comic. Life with Marty was clearly humor-filled. We also see Ginsburg enjoying conversations with her fellow Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia; close personal friends yet ideological opposites when it came to the law, they shared a love of opera.

Though she was criticized for publicly calling Donald Trump “a faker” and some feel she should have retired during the Obama administration so he could have appointed a younger liberal replacement, unless you want to count the fact that she can’t cook—and was barred from her family’s kitchen—it’s hard to find fault with Ginsburg, or with this yummy documentary she inspired.

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