In RBG, directors Julie Cohen and Betsy West tell the fascinating life story of Ruth Bader Ginsberg in a relatively routine way. Those who watch a lot of documentaries won’t have their hair blown back by any stylistic flourishes or innovations. Instead, RBG is perfectly content with the wheels that have already been invented: archival footage, talking head interviews, and primary sources like court documentation. With these tools, Cohen and West weave together an inspirational tale of an American trailblazer and outright hero: Ruth Bader Ginsberg, second woman to sit on the supreme court and unabashed defender of the rights of minorities – particularly those of women.
There’s some slight nonlinearity to the tell of Ginsberg’s story, as the film often interrupts her history to look in on her everyday life on the bench. But mostly, the film starts with Ginsberg as a student, moves on to her relationship with husband something something and follows their early family life and her burgeoning legal career. Often, Ginsberg’s own life is beset with the same challenges she would later face in the courtroom: sexual discrimination, belittlement, and disrespect.
The strongest elements of the film showcase the immense intelligence and work ethic of Ginsberg. From the time she was a young law student to her current session sitting on the highest court in the land, the woman is an absolute spitfire, burning both ends of the candle in a relentless pursuit of her judicial ideals. The woman is an inspiration on this basis alone.
And then, there’s the mind.
Ruth Bader Ginsberg has made a career out of fighting for the little guy (and girl). Her arguments have always held that men and women should be viewed equally before the law, and that a pervasive kind of discrimination exists in the laws of our country on the basis of sex. Landmark court cases and judicial reforms are not won in landslides by pithy rejoinders, but piecewise by great effort. So, bit by bit, case by case, Ginsberg chisels out a new mindset, a new worldview more appreciative of the power desparities in the workplace and how they can lead to descrimination.
The film also discusses other elements of Ginsberg’s life, most notably her personal relationships, hobbies, and dry sense of humor. As later parts of her life are discussed, Ginsberg becomes the author of many recent dissenting opinions, earning the moniker “The Notorious RBG”. These moments capture the groundswell of political interest among the younger generations, and are quite moving.
The same cannot be said of the one-sentence interviews of random young people who are just so inspired by Ginsberg. Now, I am well aware of the fact that my primary appreciation of RBG is that it dutifully presents an inspiring individual with very little fluff or manipulation, but these “interviews” are quite simply a terrible breach of the “show, don’t tell” principle. The film does a marvelous job of showing us the reasons why Ginsberg is an inspirational individual worthy of praise; we don’t need twenty-somethings (or even sixty-somethings) parroting that exact same sentiment. Ginsberg’s granddaughter, who is striving to be a lawyer herself, is only the most obvious example of this. She’s afforded the opportunity to opine on Ginsberg and her importance to the law on a very personal level, but that doesn’t make her interview an effective storytelling mechanism.
Ultimately, RBG focuses on the woman, and not those who are like totally stoked about her. The film knows that Ginsberg is a force to be reckoned with, and does well to tell her story without encumbrance. In that sense, it is a wonderfully powerful documentary with enough confidence in its subject to let her do the heavy lifting, at least for the majority of the runtime.