Still peaking at 85, Ruth Bader Ginsburg has finally become the subject of a documentary, “RBG.”
Opening Friday, the film isn’t a penetrating character study of the Supreme Court justice who has been called a “disgrace” by Donald Trump but is admired by feminists and civil libertarians and adored by millennials. But it is rewardingly informative and terrifically entertaining.
Filmmakers Betsy West and Julie Cohen combine archival footage and interviews — with family members, colleagues, friends, plaintiffs, Gloria Steinem and Ginsburg herself — in this appreciative blend of a Ginsburg 101 course and an intimate portrait dotted with fun facts.
The Brooklyn-bred Ginsburg describes her childhood self as a girl who wanted to do the things “boys did.” She recalls her mother’s advice to both “be a lady” and “be independent.”
She studied law at Harvard and Columbia universities. When few firms were hiring female attorneys, she built a career as a brilliant litigator specializing in gender-discrimination cases.
In the 1970s, Ginsburg successfully argued several such cases before the U.S. Supreme Court. In one, a married woman in the U.S. Air Force was seeking the same housing benefits that her male counterparts received.
Appointed to the Supreme Court in 1993, Ginsburg has written pointed majority opinions and searing dissents. After the court ruled that a key provision of the 1965 Voting Rights Act had become unnecessary, Ginsburg likened that decision to “throwing away your umbrella in a rainstorm because you are not getting wet.”
We also learn about Ginsburg’s happy 56-year marriage to the late Martin Ginsburg, a prominent tax attorney who enthusiastically supported his wife’s career. When still in law school, Ginsburg cared for Marty when he was ill with cancer.
Additional topics include Ginsburg’s own battles with cancer, love for opera and workouts with a trainer.
At one point, Ginsburg shows us her judicial collars. (“This one is for dissents.”)
Elsewhere, she good-naturedly addresses her unintended pop-culture stardom. Kate McKinnon’s “Saturday Night Live” parodies amuse her.
Perhaps worried that Ginsburg, who is soft-spoken, academically minded and not one for small talk, won’t click with viewers, the filmmakers devote excessive time to her rock-star popularity. It’s at the expense of deeper insights into what drives this remarkable woman.
Still, the film triumphs as a detail-rich look at the significant advances Ginsburg has helped bring about for gender equality and for the democratic principles so many leaders ignore. It also contains rarely shared information about Ginsburg’s personal journey, accompanied by lighter-side tidbits. The justice can’t cook, say her children.
That’s practically the only weakness West and Cohen attribute to Ginsburg in this slightly adulatory documentary. If they aim to paint their subject as a national treasure, they’re indeed convincing.
When asked if she will step down from her post, Ginsburg says, “I will do this as long as I can do it full-steam.” If what we see onscreen is any indication, she’ll be around for a while, and that’s an encouraging thing.
Starring: Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Jane Ginsburg, James Ginsburg, Gloria Steinem
Directed by: Betsy West, Julie Cohen
Running time: 1 hour, 37 minutes
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