Score: 3 stars *** out of 4 ****
Long a ripe source for feature films, American government officials — especially those of the non-fictional variety — always fare well if not completely with political junkies and at least a considerable share of the general movie-going public. The tales of tainted congresspersons or legendary presidents are issued with regularity but as of yet no one has made a feature focusing on a sitting Supreme Court justice.
Regardless of your political persuasion, it would be hard to disagree that Ruth Bader Ginsburg has forever changed the complexion of the highest court in the land. Nominated by President Bill Clinton in 1993 and quickly confirmed by congress, Ginsburg was just the second female to become a member of the court and surprised no one when she began siding with far-left cases and causes.
Co-written and directed by Betsy West and Julie Cohen, "RGB" deftly dodges the usual bipartisan trappings found in politically-based films by immediately making the movie a biography with politics brought in only when needed. This may start off as a splitting-hairs type of affair but eventually lands as a tale of American history which will transform Ginsburg’s most vocal opponents into people who can understand if not agree with her socio-political legal opinions.
West and Cohen make their greatest stride when introducing Ginsburg’s famed back story out of sequence; something rarely done in biographical documentaries which lends the production an almost live-action feel. It is far removed from the typically dry and generally scholastic genre format.
Born in Brooklyn in 1933 to Russian Jewish immigrant parents, Joan Ruth Bader met her future husband Martin Ginsburg (later a professor and prominent tax attorney) while each was a student at Cornell, a union that produced two children and would remain intact until his death in 2010. Both Ruth and Martin successfully overcame multiple cancer diagnosis which only adds greater depth to the film’s narrative impact.
The meat and potatoes of the film — taking place long before Ginsberg’s Supreme Court career is covered in great detail during her stints at the ACLU beginning in 1972 and her appointment to the D.C. appellant court by President Jimmy Carter in 1980. In the space of merely eight years, Ginsburg argued more than a half dozen landmark cases — mostly all dealing with women’s rights — and always emerging victorious. The filmmakers’ laser focus during these portions of the film is beyond impressive. Their mix of archival stock footage, still photos, and audio is stunning. West and Cohen also make impressive use of on-screen text later on during Ginsberg audio in Supreme Court rulings.
Of all current Supreme Court justices, Ginsburg easily has the broadest profile on social media, which brings with it a massive double-edged sword. The title of the film itself — "RBG" — is a variation on that of assassinated rapper Notorious BIG — a movement started by some of her Millennial (mostly female) fans. Images of Ginsburg on T-shirts, coffee mugs, and other assorted pieces of slogan tchotchke is evidence of her far-reaching impression on young America, something Ginsburg joyfully acknowledges and does nothing to discourage.
It’s a good thing because it gets young people mostly not interested in the law and the constitution (in theory) to get involved with the law and understanding jurisprudence, but there is also the danger that these same people view Ginsburg as a liberal Rock Star without any knowledge of the law or her previous cases that brought her to the Supreme Court in the first place. It’s bad if these impressionable young people view her as a rubber stamp icon on all “progressive” issues. Question these folks on the particulars of cases argued by Ginsburg back in the day and you will likely get a collective "cricket" response.
On the whole, "RBG" is a highly efficient, wonderfully informative, frequently humorous, and often touching film. Latter passages focusing on her odd couple, oil-and-water relationship with late Justice Antonin Scalia border on the heart-tugging. Again, you can completely disagree with everything Ginsburg has ever done as a lawyer and/or a judge but as a subject for a non-fiction film, she has few peers. Like it or not, Ginsburg’s story is captivating and ideal fodder for a movie.
What isn’t positive in the least on either side of the political isle is the filmmaker’s unwise inclusion of audio at the start of the film which declares Ginsburg as “a vile wicked witch and an anti-American zombie” and late third act comments accusing her detractors as being “right wing whackos.” These comments are mildly understandable but completely unforgiveable when defining anyone with differing views on one of the most interesting and provocative jurists this country has ever known. This movie would have been a masterpiece had the filmmakers removed these two unneeded audio passages.
Michael Clark has written for over 30 local and national media outlets and is currently the only newspaper-based film critic providing original content in the Atlanta Top 10 media marketplace and he recently co-founded the Atlanta Film Critics Circle. Over the last two decades, Mr. Clark has written over 3,500 movie reviews and film related articles for the Gwinnett Daily Post and is one of the scant few conservative-minded U.S. critics. To read more of his reports — Click Here Now.
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