(RBG, Julie Cohen and Betsy West’s well received doc on Ruth Bader Ginsburg is in theaters now via Magnolia Pictures.)
From filmmakers Julie Cohen (American Veteran) and Betsy West (producer, Constantine’s Sword) comes RBG, a timely profile of the great champion of women’s rights – and only second woman to ever be confirmed to the United States Supreme Court – Ruth Bader Ginsburg. Born in 1933, Ginsburg has recently developed something of a cult following among millennials, reflected by the 2015 publishing of Irin Carmon and Shana Knizhnik’s book Notorious RBG: The Life and Times of Ruth Bader Ginsburg, itself inspired by the eponymous Tumblr. At 85, Ginsburg seems to be trending more than ever.
We open with an audio montage of voices from the right-wing mediaverse, all excoriating Ginsburg as an evil woman, not fit to serve (or worse). Her crime? She’s smart, articulate and refuses to back down. Whereas her initial time on the Supreme Court (she was appointed by President Bill Clinton in 1993) was spent in the company of more like-minded justices, she has morphed, as the court has drifted rightward, into a great dissenter, never afraid to put into words her disgust at decisions that go against her principles. And while this stirring film may have little chance of persuading those who already hate her to change their minds, it is otherwise a masterful homage to her life and work, perfect for those who already love her, as well as for those willing to listen.
As we learn, Ginsburg (née Bader), coming of age in the regressive 1950s, studied the law and found work as a lawyer at a time when women just didn’t do this kind of thing. She was fortunate in her choice of mate, Marty Ginsburg, a man unlike his peers who not only fell in love with her (and she with him), but supported her career choices, without reservation. Years later, it would be he, as a successful lawyer in his own right, who would lobby to have his wife considered for the Supreme Court. By that time, she was already a federal judge (appointed by President Jimmy Carter), and a jurist with a long record of arguing and winning cases in front of the Supreme Court that had opened up new avenues and possibilities for women (Frontiero v. Richardson and Weinberger v. Wiesenfeld among those cases).
Filled with great talking-head interviews with people like NPR’s Nina Tottenberg, Senator Orrin Hatch (a Republican, but one who respects her achievements), and the great feminist icon Gloria Steinem, as well as with the many members of Ginsburg’s family (children and grandchildren), the film inspires with its steady presentation of facts and anecdotes, all of which make of this movie a rich cinematic portrait. If the film lacks any particular innovations of mise-en-scène or editing, it more than makes up for it with the panache and wit of its subject. Whether she is in the middle of her rigorous exercise routine, waxing rhapsodic about opera (a passion she shared with her late friend, the conservative justice Antonin Scalia), spending time with her progeny or staying up late working on cases, Ginsburg is an always-engaging star. May we all have so much energy for so long. She’s not ready to retire, she says. Looking good, RBG! Keep it up!
– Christopher Llewellyn Reed (@ChrisReedFilm)