DirectorBetsy West and Julie Cohen
Release Date(s)2018 (August 28, 2018)
Studio(s)CNN Films/Storyville Films/Participant Media (Magnolia Pictures)
- Film/Program Grade: A
- Video Grade: A-
- Audio Grade: A
- Extras Grade: C-
Documentaries have never achieved the wide popularity of Hollywood’s fiction movies, even when they receive excellent reviews and high-profile media coverage. In RBG, directors Betsy West and Julie Cohen have provided a thoroughly entertaining and informative look at the life of Ruth Bader Ginsburg, who was appointed Associate Justice of the Supreme Court by President Bill Clinton in 1993.
Now 84, she is shown reminiscing about growing up in Brooklyn, attending law school when law was essentially a man’s game, and encountering ingrained discrimination because of her gender. Gender equality is one of the causes for which she has become best known.
She met Marty Ginsburg at Cornell University and they eventually married. He was the love of her life and became her greatest champion. Ms. Ginsburg, quiet, reserved, and never one to toot her own horn, felt that the best way to win an argument was with logic and detailed application of the law. Of the six cases she argued as an attorney before the Supreme Court, she won five. Known today as one of the most liberal judges on the bench, when she originally joined the court she was not as far left in her thinking. With the appointment of conservative justices by George W. Bush and Donald Trump, she now carries the banner for the liberal minority.
We get an insight into this woman who works so intensely until the wee small hours that she sometimes forgets to eat, loves opera because the human voice feels like electricity going through her body, and has a personal trainer who takes her through a vigorous daily workout. At Harvard Law School, she was one of only nine women in a class of more than 500, and the dean demanded to know why she and her fellow female classmates were taking a seat that could have gone to a man. She made the Law Review her second year, yet when she graduated no New York firm would hire her.
As the mother of a young child and wife of a sick husband, she did her own work, took care of the baby in the afternoons, and did her husband’s law school work for him at night. She survived two separate bouts of cancer and the eventual loss of her husband to cancer.
Interviews with colleagues and family members portray Ginsburg as a brilliant woman, tireless worker, and devoted mother and grandmother. Her reserved demeanor was the exact opposite of her gregarious husband’s sense of humor, and there are examples of his ability to elicit smiles and even laughter with his observations on life with his famous wife. We see Justice Ginsburg taking a small spoken part in an opera, with dialogue she wrote herself, and sharing the stage with fellow justice Antonin Scalia, her friend and ideological adversary on the court. Scalia quips about Ginsburg, “What’s not to like? Except her views on the law.”
She packs auditoriums when she speaks, has appeared in a comic book, adorns coffee mugs, T-shirts, and posters, and even has her own action figure.
The negative comments that Ginsburg made publicly about Donald Trump are mentioned, but only briefly, with even her supporters saying it was a breach of propriety. She eventually apologized and comments in the film that she wished she had remained silent about her feelings.
The film points out how much ingrained bias there was as late as the 1960s and beyond against women’s equality in employment, the military, and reproductive rights. Ginsburg didn’t storm the barricades of injustice and prevail with one great victory. Rather, she chipped away gradually, over time, at inherently unfair laws that kept women subjugated to men, preventing them from bettering their lives.
Rated PG, RBG is an outstanding look at the professional and private lives of Ruth Bader Ginsburg, referred to by Gloria Steinem as a superhero because the justice clearly helped to level the playing field by championing women’s rights.
Bonus materials on the Blu-ray release include deleted and extended scenes, and additional interviews, most reiterating comments made by others in the documentary.
- Dennis Seuling