Informative, insightful, and packed with quiet but undeniable charisma, “RBG” is a fascinating look at the life, legal legacy, and current popularity of U.S. Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg.
The look the film provides is a pervasive one, as the film sets out to show who Ginsburg is both on and off the bench -- a wife, a grandmother, and a physically active woman in her 80s who arguably works just as hard as an octogenarian as she did fifty years ago.
But it also sets out to acquaint audiences with Ginsburg’s unique voice and perspective on the issues she’s argued, ruled on, and continues to fight for. It’s an ambitious effort that for the most part yields impactful results.
What’s it about?
“RBG” uses interviews with family, friends, political figures and Ginsburg herself as well as current and archival footage to present Ginsburg’s life and the path of her career across more than seven decades.
The film traces her steps from her early life in Brooklyn, New York, her marriage to Marty Ginsburg in 1954 after they met at Cornell University, and the beginning of her work in the law.
Her legal career, the film posits, has been defined in part by being a trailblazer for women and for gender equality in the eyes of the law. Ginsburg chose to take on that fight, and the film spends considerable time on the memorable battles in that ongoing fight, battles wages both in front of and later on the Supreme Court bench.
However, the film spends an almost equal amount of time highlighting Ginsburg’s personal life and history. Her marriage to Marty, which spanned more than fifty years until his death in 2010, her relationship with her family, and how she perceives and processes her current popularity with millennials who have gravitated towards her as a dissenter and a champion of liberal stances all play a role in creating a vibrant and compelling portrait of a woman is both lionized and demonized when her name comes up in today’s 24-hour news cycle, depending on the media outlet in question.
Strength of voice
Film makers Betsy West and Julie Cohen build much of “RBG” around Ginsburg’s unique voice. One-on-one interviews, voice recordings, and even Ginsburg reading her own written words all come into play for the directors as they work to leave an indelible impression upon audiences of just how important that voice has been in American jurisprudence.
The testimonials delivered by the many others who participated in the documentary – from Ginsburg’s children to her former clients, from the authors of “Notorious RBG: The Life and Times of Ruth Bader Ginsburg” to President Bill Clinton and Senator Orrin Hatch – thus serve to create important context. They fill out the picture of Ginsburg as the source of that powerful voice: a tiny, soft-spoken, but remarkably dynamic woman who is resolved to continue her work until she physically cannot perform her duties any longer.
Threaded throughout the film is Ginsburg’s quiet, humble charm. She handles her recent celebrity status with wit, humility, and bemusement – listening to her comment on her “Notorious” nickname, on Kate McKinnon’s impression of her on “Saturday Night Live” or of the fact that people have had her face tattooed on their bodies provide some of the film’s funniest and most endearing moments.
“RBG” is an engaging and entertaining film that should be seen by anyone who follows today’s contentious and polarizing politics and wishes to learn more about one of the Supreme Court’s most influential voices.
If you’re already an “RBG” fan, the film should leave you all the more endeared and inspired by her work and her continuing resolve. If you’re a critic or someone who emphatically opposes what she stands for, you may develop a more nuanced view of the woman and what drives her to champion the causes she does, as well as a respect for her willingness to compartmentalize and develop relationships with colleagues who may not share her leanings.
One way or the other, you will most likely leave the film talking about it, and looking forward to the next time Ginsburg makes her voice heard in our world, just to hear what she has to say.
Featuring Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Gloria Steinem, Jane and James Ginsburg, Nina Totenberg, Lilly Ledbetter, Irin Carmon and Shana Knizhnik, Eugene Scalia, President Bill Clinton and Senator Orrin Hatch. Directed by Betsy West and Julie Cohen.
Running time: 97 minutes
Rated PG for some thematic elements and language