In the midst of an era that’s defined by its bitter divisiveness and smoldering hostility, people are left searching for even the slightest glimmer of hope in the darkness. For many, that hope comes in the form of U.S. Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, a deferential, moral reminder of the values we as a nation hold dear. A reassuring documentary with impeccable cultural timing, RBG is an intimate – though never overly thorough – portrait of one of contemporary feminism’s most outspoken champions.
In their flattering chronicle, documentarians Julie Cohen and Betsy West don’t shy away from Ginsburg’s recent emergence as both a popular meme and the closest thing the Supreme Court has to an honest-to-goodness celebrity (thanks in no small part to Kate McKinnon’s outlandish impersonation on Saturday Night Live), but they keep the focus zeroed in on her accomplishments in regards to equality. Both as a prominent litigator and a founder of the ACLU’s Women’s Rights Project, Ginsburg made great strides in the battle against gender disparity. In order to create a rich view of her personal life, co-directors Cohen and West probe the justice’s colleagues and loved ones for details about who Ginsburg is outside of her legal endeavors.
A true conduit for social revolution, the story of women in 20th Century America runs parallel to her storied career. Given a cool, resolute pace by editor Carla Gutierrez (Tales of the Waria, Bragging Rights: Stickball Stories), the film weaves an insular tapestry out of Ginsburg’s career highlights, from presenting cases in front of the Supreme Court in the 1970s to her historic confirmation hearing in 1993. Talking head interviews are interspersed to provide commentary on her accomplishments, and RBG captures the unwavering respect her colleagues on both sides of the aisle have for her quick wit and relentless fortitude.
By their very nature, members Supreme Court are mysterious; we rarely see them on any sort of human level. Rather, they are ambiguous entities who serve as the gatekeepers of objective truth in the American justice system. In the film’s opening, we get a taste of the hate speech hurled at Ginsburg – “vile,” “anti-American,” etc. – as a result of the emotional barrier we have between us and our elected officials. Cohen and West’s greatest achievement is that they are somehow able to peel back the curtain and show Ginsburg as a living, breathing person. Their heartfelt documentary doesn’t dig very far beneath the surface, but simply making The Highest Court of the Land a bit more sympathetic is an admirable feat in itself.
Filled with pomp and energy, RBG is a crowd-pleaser. There is a cult of personality surrounding Ruth Bader Ginsburg that undercuts her monumental fight for equality, and Cohen and West are able to pierce through it and flesh out an elastic biographical profile. This isn’t a warts-and-all exploration, but it probes significantly deeper than it needed to in order to appease its target demographic. Ginsburg is afforded the opportunity to tell her own story, and it’s difficult not to get swept up by its fist-pumping zeal.