RBG Review: A Comprehensive Portrait of American Law’s Great Dissenter

CNN Films' documentary about the feminist pioneer (and progressive meme) is a straightforward but comprehensive overview of the iconic lawmaker's life of women's rights activism.

At eighty-four years of age, Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg shows no signs of stopping or slowing down: she works out with a trainer every day, toils nonstop in her office till sometimes 2-4AM, and presides over the highest court in the land as one of its most progressive judges in a time when she’s needed most.

To a lot of liberals in America (and especially to a generation of young women), she’s practically a rock star, as evidenced by her achieving peak meme status as “The Notorious R.B.G.” But as Julie Cohen and Betsy West’s documentary on the acclaimed lawmaker demonstrates, she’s also a well-rounded person with a fascinating life – one that justifies the praise heaped upon her as a pioneer for women’s rights.

RBG, Cohen and West’s doc for CNN Films, doesn’t break the mold in terms of documentary form. With its combo of talking heads, archival footage and fly-on-the-wall footage of RBG working out and taking interviews, it functions well as an easily digestible, straightforward overview of Ginsburg’s life. That said, her life is dynamic, groundbreaking and fascinating enough to hold the documentary up on its own, so it’s probably a good thing that Cohen and West don’t get too flashy with it.

Framing the story around Justice Ginsburg’s 1993 Supreme Court confirmation hearing, RBG takes us on a chronological tour of her life, starting with her childhood as the daughter of Russian Jewish immigrants in Brooklyn. Even in her early years, RBG shows glimmers of the studious, serious-minded and justice-oriented person she would become famous for – instincts instilled in her by her mother Celia.

From there, she attends Cornell (where she meets her husband, Marty Ginsburg), then makes the Harvard Law Review, then starts working as a law professor at Rutgers. All of this is even before she begins her career overseeing landmark sex discrimination cases as director of the ACLU’s Women’s Rights Project in the 70s.

At a certain point, RBG feels like a laundry list of Ginsburg’s achievements, of which there are many – and all are deserving of mention. But the most fascinating aspects of the doc are the glimmers of Ginsburg’s persona throughout: she’s soft-spoken but witty, superficially timid but with a sharp mind underneath all that deference. Her philosophy of social change is based in incrementalism – “real change, enduring change, occurs one step at a time” – and this shows in her endless patience for her political opponents. She doesn’t want to shout them down, but thoroughly explain to them the rightness of her ideas.

It’s a harder pill to swallow in an age where political parties seemingly exist in two different realities, and yet RBG offers a glimmer of hope that reason will win out. This is most evident in her unlikely friendship with the late Antonin Scalia, two people who likely couldn’t fall on further ends of the political spectrum. While they disagreed on almost everything, footage shows them as congenial, offering pleasant jabs at one another and attending the opera together despite fiercely debating the most fundamental civil and legal issues of the day. Here, the doc makes clear another admirable aspect of Ginsburg’s activism – the patience to reach hands across the aisle, which is daring in a political world of strict dualities.

Central to Ginsburg’s appeal, of course, is her status as a feminist icon (a moniker that’s well-deserved) and the doc touches on her response to that fame in interesting ways. The media treats her as larger than life, which presents an ironic juxtaposition to her quiet, matter-of-fact demeanor.

Still, it’s great to see her live-react to Kate McKinnon’s uproarious impression of her on Saturday Night Live. Is it funny? Yes, she says. Does it resemble her in any way? “Not one bit,” she chuckles. From memes to T-shirts, Ginsburg has embraced her newfound notoriety among a generation of young progressives who see her as one of the last bastions of equality and idealism left in government.

All these things and more are hallmarks of RBG’s no-nonsense look at the life of one of our oldest and most esteemed lawmakers. Whether helping to end sex discrimination in military academies or Social Security rights (for both sexes), or engaging in a beautiful, decades-long marriage with her endlessly supportive husband, Ginsburg’s life is presented as a model for all progressives to follow, regardless of gender. Cohen and West’s account of her life may not blow any minds from a formal perspective, but it offers an eye-opening glimpse into exactly what makes RBG so notorious.

RBG plays in Chicago at the Landmark Century Centre and the AMC River East starting Friday, May 4th.

Liked it? Take a second to support Alcohollywood on Patreon!

About Clint Worthington

Clint Worthington is a Chicago-based film/TV critic and podcaster. A member of the Chicago Film Critics Association, you can find his other film work at Consequence of Sound (where he is a Senior Staff Writer), Crooked Marquee, IndieWire and UPROXX. He is also the co-host of Nathan Rabin's Happy Cast.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *