RBG, from documentarians from Julie Cohen and Betsy West, opens with images of Washington D.C. accompanied by sound bites from conservative talk radio and one American president casually dismissing a Supreme Court justice as vile and disgusting. “Witch” and “zombie” are tossed around as if they are discussing an enemy of the state. In the context of the daily news cycle, these insults are part and parcel of being a public figure and a government employee. But in the context of a documentary, one designed to celebrate the subject in question, this level of vitriol takes on new meaning.
“What has become of me could happen only in America,” 85-year-old Associate Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg says with a smile.
Ginsburg, Kiki to her friends, was born and bred in Brooklyn, New York, and became a tough, resourceful and levelheaded woman. With a seemingly bottomless pit of energy, she climbed her way to the top and carved out a name for herself in American history. Sandra Day O’Connor may have been the first woman confirmed to the Supreme Court, but the law books will always have a special place for Ginsburg.
Maybe that’s because Ginsburg was willing to work three times as hard to make her mark. As RBG shows, Ginsburg has spent her life heeding her mother’s advice not to yell to win an argument. Instead, Ginsburg remains informed and educated, the calm center of a political hurricane.
Maybe that’s why Ginsburgfeels like a tonic in today’s toxic political climate: she’s almost too good to be true. That’s also why RBG feels lackluster. Sure, the doc’s an engaging 100-minute sit, but the whole thing feels routine. Cohen and West piece together archival footage—primarily Ginsburg’s confirmation hearing in 1993—alongside current-day interviews with the associate justice and her family members. Everyone speaks glowingly about Ginsburg, as they should, but RBG lacks the critical faculties necessary to paint the full picture.
This is most evident in the doc’s third act when the focus shifts from Ginsburg’s accomplishments to her rise as an internet meme. Though RBG shows two acts worth of evidence as to why anyone would exalt Ginsburg to celebrity status, the third act offers no insight, no general inquisitiveness, as to why she has become one. Is it her willingness to dissent, likely tying into the Left’s idea of “The Resistance?” Is it merely that her monogram is similar to rapper Notorious B.I.G.? Is it the decretive lace collars with which she adorns her judicial robes? Is it her diminutive grand-matronly visage? Is it all of the above? The failure of RBG—and the failure of any documentary—is the failure to dig beneath the surface, merely accepting truth at face value.
Instead, Cohen and West show Ginsburg a Saturday Night Live skit where Kate McKinnon mugs, quips, and dances as Ginsburg in oversized glasses, a black justice robe, and a white lace collar. Ginsburg laughs with a broad grin.
“Does it remind you of yourself?” the directors ask.
“Not one bit,” Ginsburg replies, smile still firmly in place. “Except for the collar.”
Produced and directed by Julie Cohen, Betsy West
Starring: Ruth Bader Ginsburg
Magnolia Pictures, Rated PG, Running time 98 minutes, Opened May 4, 2018.
The above review first appeared in the pages of Boulder Weekly Vol. 25, No. 40, “Beyond notorious.”
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