Now in her mid-eighties, petite but decisive Supreme Court Associate Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg has become an unlikely rock star among activists (as well as a figure venomously denounced her detractors), and this unabashedly adulatory documentary by Betsy West and Julie Cohen does a reasonably good job of showing the important contributions she has made to the women’s movement in this country, even if it hardly breaks any new ground in stylistic terms.
Using archival materials—stills and news footage—the film charts Ginsburg’s life in amiable fashion. It recounts her Brooklyn childhood and high school years, portraying her (in the words of elderly friends) as a reserved but determined young woman, before moving on to her college career at Cornell, where women were still a small minority, and her marriage to classmate Marty Ginsburg, with whom she had a child and whom she nursed through a bout with cancer. Nonetheless she continued her education, at each step representing an ever-smaller female minority, eventually earning a law degree at Columbia.
After graduation she found it difficult to find work in an all-male preserve, and joined the ACLU, becoming a pioneering champion in the cause of advancing women’s rights through court action on issues like wage equity, employment opportunity and benefits equality. But she did not approach the work as a firebrand: methodical and straightforward in presenting her arguments, she succeeded in making progress, though at times haltingly, before a judiciary that remained fully male through persuasion rather than volatile rhetoric.
Then came her appointment to the bench, which culminated to her nomination to the Supreme Court by Bill Clinton—a dark horse candidate whom, as the former president remarks in an interview, he chose on the basis of her interview (though, as the film also notes, the efforts of her well-connected husband, always her greatest supporter, to bring her to the administration’s attention were not insignificant). Her role as Associate Justice has, it’s made clear, changed over time: originally part of a liberal majority, over time with new appointments the court has taken a decisively conservative turn, and she has now assumed the part of a fiery dissenter.
As edited by Carla Gutierrez, “RBG”—a nickname supporters have given her in emulation of the rapper, The Notorious B.I.G.—is good at balancing Ginsburg’s personal and professional lives. It includes interviews with her children Jane and James, who amusingly recall her ineptitude in the kitchen, and her granddaughter Clara Spera, along with former classmates and colleagues on the bench and observers (and sometimes opponents) like Arthur Miller, Gloria Steinem, Nina Totenberg, Orrin Hatch and Ted Olson. It conflates such personal testimony with footage of her senate confirmation hearings, in which she expressed her views with a degree of honesty rare in judicial candidates nowadays, and recordings of her arguments that often morph into readings from them by the justice herself.
While offering an affectionate portrait of Ginsburg—including her reactions to sketches about her impersonation by Kate McKinnon on Saturday Night Live and her devotion to opera (extending even to taking a non-singing role in one, to the audience’s delight)—the film also does a nice job sketching her marriage to Marty—he recognized and affirmed her ability from the moment they met, and they were obviously devoted to one another until his death—and her close friendship with her fellow Justice Antonin Scalia, with whom she could not have differed more on issues but whose company she enjoyed enormously, as his son Eugene testifies.
The result is a film that, while far more conventional than its subject, gets the job done.