RBG: Hypnotized, by David Bax
Just seconds into Julie Cohen and Betsy West’s RBG, we see the documentary’s subject, 84-year-old Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, working out in a gym while wearing sweatshirt that says “Super Diva.” That post-ironic Millennial self-confidence is indicative of one of the biggest takeaways of the film (and the biggest reason for its existence in the first place), that Ginsburg has become a meme and she knows it. Despite providing a respectable history of the extraordinary woman’s life and career, Cohen and West also want to make sure we see her cracking up at Kate McKinnon’s impression of her on Saturday Night Live. That’s a fine directorial impulse but it also provides a shorthand for the film’s flimsy motivations. RBG‘s intended audience is much like RBG herself in that moment, delighting in the chance to see their best qualities exaggerated and shown back to them.
RBG alternates between a chronological account of Ginsburg’s life and present day scenes of her visiting with family, showing off the jabots she wears around her neck when in her judicial robes, etc. Cohen and West break things down into chapters of sorts, each one defined by one of Ginsburg’s definitive cases, usually accompanied by Ginsburg reading out loud the decision she wrote at the time, an effective tactic that reinforces the film’s thesis that her story isn’t done being told yet.
Though they never exactly dive deep into Ginsburg’s philosophies of law and life, Cohen and West do know how to arrange information for maximum impact and forward momentum. RBG is forcefully edited and moves along at an rapid clip.
That doesn’t mean the movie doesn’t know when to slow down and take in the sweeter moments. All of the best stuff here involves Ginsburg’s family. Her kids and grandkids are proof that intelligence is either hereditary or can be taught (or both). But perhaps the strongest argument RBG has to offer is its detailing of Ginsburg’s relationship with her late husband. A law school classmate and successful New York City attorney, he is positioned in the film to provide, in essence, a case study in how to be a good husband or other male partner. Confident in both himself and her, he not only refused to be intimidated by her success and brains, he actively advocated for her when she wouldn’t, lobbying President Clinton to nominate her to the Supreme Court. For all its preaching to the choir, this movie might actually succeed in making men better feminists.
If RBG also succeeds in encouraging women (or anyone) to pursue a career in law, they might be disappointed with what they find. Cohen and West are uninterested in the intellectual, analytical depths of the subject, presenting it instead as a lifetime of fierce advocacy and speechifying. The closest they get to the thornier realities is in admitting that Ginsburg’s derogatory comments about candidate Donald Trump, correct as they may be (she called him a “faker”), were inappropriate for someone in her lofty position who should represent blind justice. We see her admit her mistake but then, almost immediately, are treated to footage of her participating in an opera with heavily charged metaphors that would seem to indicate a doubling down on her part.
RBG a hagiography, a puff piece. It’s a well put together one but it’s still nothing more. Ginsburg is an inspiring figure but this movie is only for the already inspired.