* ½ (out of 4)
It’s hard to overstate just how big an impact Ruth Bader Ginsburg has had on American society. Back in the ’70s, the now-85-year-old Supreme Court justice already earned a claim to fame with her advocacy in landmark cases like Frontiero v. Richardson. When she arrived at the high court in the ’90s, she only further cemented her place in history with her opinions in cases like U.S. v. Virginia. And now, in the sunset of her life, Ginsburg has also become the most unlikely of pop culture icons, a “notorious” celebrity who’s referenced just as often in Hollywood blockbusters as in law reviews.
Ginsburg’s story, in short, is the kind that practically begs to be recounted, dissected, and interpreted on the silver screen. Unfortunately, however, Julie Cohen and Betsy West’s new documentary RBG proves woefully ill-equipped for the task. Throughout the film’s 94-minute running time, Cohen and West generally stick to recounting aspects of Ginsburg’s life (e.g. her friendship with Antonin Scalia) that you could easily learn about via a mere glance at Wikipedia. And while the two co-directors managed to snag an interview with Ginsburg herself, they waste much of the time they spend with her on frivolous topics like Ginsburg’s wardrobe and Kate McKinnon’s acting. Because of all this, the overall film feels maddeningly shallow: it often touches on potentially intriguing moments in Ginsburg’s career, but in its desire to provide a “complete,” start-to-finish portrait of her life, it ultimately leaves most of them unexplored.
Beyond its rampant superficiality, however, the greater issue with RBG is the overly adulatory attitude it adopts towards its subject. Ginsburg has never been universally loved: conservatives constantly find fault with her views, and recent biographies have detailed how some left-wing groups actually opposed her Supreme Court nomination. Yet aside from a brief scene in which a conservative professor complains about Ginsburg’s scathing comments on Donald Trump, RBG rarely even acknowledges the possibility that you could view Ginsburg with anything less than total reverence. Cohen and West are aware that their viewers will skew liberal, in other words – but instead of critically engaging with their audiences’ worldview, the two of them create an unadulterated paean to liberalism that simply reaffirms everything said audiences already believe. In that way, the film ironically embodies the exact kind of intellectual coddling that Ginsburg has always rejected, both in her establishment-defying advocacy work and her close friendships with prominent conservatives.
Many of the critics responsible for RBG’s sky-high Rotten Tomatoes score (92%) have justified their evaluations with the familiar claim that the film is “relevant.” They’re not wrong: in the wake of Trump’s election and #MeToo, a documentary about a trailblazing feminist is the very definition of timely. Yet Cohen and West ultimately squander this supposed asset on arguments, testimonials, and analyses that merely seek to gratify you with unimaginative choir preaching. And although the film will likely leave you uplifted in the moment – especially if you’re already a diehard RBG fan – its toothless approach virtually guarantees that you’ll forget about it within a day or two. We’ll just have to wait for November’s On the Basis of Sex to see whether there’s a filmmaker who can truly do justice to the rich complexities of Ginsburg’s career.
Running Time: 97 minutes
MPAA Rating: PG, “for some thematic elements and language.”
Produced and Directed by: Julie Cohen, Betsy West