RBG | Docs/ology

RBG

Directors: Julie Cohen, Betsy West

Runtime: 98 minutes

The United States Supreme Court begins each day in session with a handshake. Each of the judges greet one another before engaging in the work interpreting the law of the land – which of course takes place within the context of sometimes bitter legal differences amongst them. This picture of congeniality among those who make up the court is both a reminder of the strange dichotomy that makes up the American judicial system and a tribute to one of its foremost members, Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg. 

In the new film RBG, we meet the woman who, at age 85, has become a pop culture phenomenon complete with internet memes, Saturday Night Live skits, and merchandise bearing her street art-inspired likeness. 

The film opens with the voices of her many political critics, including our current president, who sound like they are describing a dangerous serial killer – not a frail old lady who resembles a cross between your grandmother and Mother Theresa. In this engaging documentary directed by Julie Cohen and Betsy West, we learn of Ginsberg’s early days as one of the only females at Cornell and Harvard law schools and the early courtship with her husband of 56 years, Martin Ginsberg. This partnership, as it’s proposed in the film, becomes the anchor for Ginsberg’s work, as Martin essentially vacates his budding career as a star New York City tax attorney to follow Ruth to Washington, DC. Once arriving on the scene, she rises through the ranks and is appointed in 1993 by President Bill Clinton as only the second woman to serve on the high court. 

The other aspect of Ginsberg’s life that has been played up in the press recently is her allegedly intense fitness routine. The film gives us a glimpse with Ginsberg donning a ‘Super Diva’ sweatshirt charmingly working out with her trainer – sweat beads building above her trademark glasses. What’s clear is Ginsberg wants to stay on the bench as long as she is able – what is less clear, but perhaps implied, is her reason for doing so. And though the film does not say it, we are reminded of the abnormally harsh criticism (at least coming from a Supreme Court justice) Ginsberg aimed at then candidate Donald Trump. Could an aging supreme court justice be hitting the gym three days a week just to prevent President Trump the satisfaction of appointing a new one? We are left to wonder. 

Overall the film is successful in praising Ginsberg as a leader for women’s rights. And while many women have earned fame for leading marches, Justice Ginsberg has waged her crusade from the bench becoming a pivotal voice (and vote) in some of the most important legislation of our time.

As a film the secret weapon of RBG isn’t ‘Ginsberg the dissenter’, as she’s known to some, but rather the agreement she made to a marriage that lasted 56-years. The partnership between she and Martin, who died in 2010, adds an unexpected sweetness to the ‘notorious’ character we see portrayed in the film marketing and pop culture. Ruth Bader Ginsberg didn’t need a slickly produced biopic to cement her legacy; we only have to look to the law for that. But viewers of RBG are rewarded by witnessing the legacy of a lasting marriage that provided the foundation for all the good work she’s done for our country.  

— Andy Peterson