Starring: Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Gloria Steinem, Nina Totenberg
Directed by: Julie Cohen (“American Veteran”) and Betsy West (debut)
It probably won’t become the definitive film on U.S. Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s life and 60-year legal career, but the documentary “RBG” is a satisfying start.
Referring to the initialed moniker of the trailblazing judge and champion of women’s rights, “RBG” is a solid, albeit slight, glimpse into the inspiring story of the 85-year-old Ginsburg. From the Brooklyn-born daughter of Russian Jewish parents to one of the three female justices currently serving on the nine-judge bench, Ginsburg has become a cultural icon. Early in her career as counsel for the American Civil Liberties Union, she made a name for herself by trying more than 300 gender discrimination cases, including six in front of the SCOTUS, five of which she won.
In “RBG,” directors Julie Cohen and Betsy West use talking-head interviews with childhood friends, family members, colleagues and others who have known Ginsburg throughout the years, to illuminate aspects of the justice’s work on the bench and her private life. While much of what comes out of the mouths of the interviewees might be considered hero-worship, Cohen and West do a reasonable job of not allowing it to get out of hand, although journalist and activist Gloria Steinem at one point describes Ginsberg as the “closest thing to a superhero I know.”
If you want to get to know Ginsberg on a personal level, the most effective sections of the documentary are when Cohen and West focus on her loving relationship with her late husband Martin. Through home videos and photos, audiences get an opportunity to identify with Ginsberg as more than the crown-wearing, meme-ified persona trending on Twitter.
Still, as enjoyable as it sometimes is to see Ginsberg train at a gym, attend the opera and laugh at comedian Kate McKinnon impersonating her on “Saturday Night Live” (“That’s a Ginsburn!”), the elements of Ginsberg’s life that are truly fascinating are the landmark court cases she presided over that changed the course of history, like Frontiero v. Richardson, Ledbetter v. Goodyear and United States v. Virginia, all of which are covered in “RBG.” Unfortunately, they’re not explored in much depth. This proves that Ginsberg is a subject for a 12-part docuseries, not a 97-minute teaser.
We won’t fault the film too much for glossing over most of the cases and trying to make “RBG” easier to digest for audiences not interested in listening to any legalese. But there is enough content for a few sequels if Cohen and West are so inclined. Until then, “RBG” is good enough. It’s surface-level stuff, but it still speaks truth to power — something everyone could use currently in this toxic political climate.