While television news media has become more partisan and less trustworthy, one silver lining (if you really want to find one) is that we live in a golden age (not to mix color metaphors) of documentary filmmaking. Many documentarians are filling the role that news media once did, presenting fact-based stories to an audience trying to find a space free of #fakenews. Last year’s Oscar nominees for Best Documentary were incredibly strong, with many of the movies deserving of the golden statue. 2018 is shaping up to be another year for strong documentaries. In terms of biographical films, we’ve already been treated to the wonderful Won’t You Be My Neighbor, the story of Fred Rogers’ life and career, and hot on its heels is RBG, which—for the approximately three of you that don’t know—are the initials of Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg. While the filmmaking itself might not be quite as strong as Won’t You Be My Neighbor, the subject of RBG is even more fascinating and likely to bring you to tears with her strength, intelligence, and righteousness.
Ruth Bader Ginsburg (or the Notorious R.B.G., as she is often referred to through memes on the internet), has, since the advent of those memes, lived more and more of her life in the public eye, taking on an air akin to a celebrity. And in accordance with that new-found celebrity, the thesis of directors Julie Cohen and Betsy West’s documentary is mostly confirmation of what we already know: That Justice Ginsburg is, was, and will be a voice of reason in dark political times. Unfortunately, Cohen and West seem content to mostly affirm things we already know about Ginsburg: That she is a groundbreaking lawmaker and interpreter of the law, and that the driving force of her career has been a passion for gender equality.
The movie relies on interviews with people who talk about Ginsburg in obvious terms, often comparing her remarkable fierceness with her short physical stature and her restraint with her profound instances of dissent. These are expected, rote, and frankly, rather uninteresting comparisons that don’t really say anything about their subject. If Cohen and West fail in their goal, it’s due to their willingness to accept these surface-level tropes as the foundation of their film. For a figure like Ginsburg, whose life was filled with the combative acts of arguing and interpreting the law, and who fought (and continues to fight) an uphill battle for equality, the documentary feels strangely lacking in conflict. But by the same token, the film does succeed in staying out of the way of its powerful subject. Even a color-by-numbers biography of Ginsburg can’t fail to be interesting.
The documentary fills us in on R.B.G.’s history: her close, extremely influential relationship to her mother, her admittance into Cornell Law School (when, at the time, women comprised only a quarter of the student body and frequently contended with the public perception that they were looking for a husband), her fifty-year love affair with her husband Martin, and her career as a lawyer, professor, and Supreme Court Judge. All of this is done adroitly enough, with interjections now and then from family, close friends, colleagues, and of course, from Ginsburg herself. The only time these interjections prove tiresome is when the creators of the R.B.G. memes and viral slogans are interviewed; in a documentary whose subject is as interesting as Ginsburg, devoting so much time to her recent online fandom, which is not even worth a footnote in the scheme of her impressive life and career, feels like wasted screen time.
As one might suspect, the documentary shines brightest when it allows Ginsburg to speak for herself. When she speaks, her words carry the same weight and are pronounced in the same measured, thoughtful tone, as a guru. It’s at these moments that you stop munching popcorn and listen, fascinated.
So is RBG worth watching? The answer is emphatical yes—because we all need more of Ruth Bader Ginsburg, and people like her, in our lives. Just don’t watch it expecting to learn anything new about her life and work! While the documentary might simply be average, Ginsburg is anything but, and she cannot help but imbue the film with her brilliance and magic.