Film Review: ‘RBG’ Pays Tribute to a Judicial Icon

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Supreme Court Justices don’t become celebrities. That’s just not how it works. Well, that’s not usually how it works. In the case of Ruth Bader Ginsberg, the rules have never really applied. As seen here in the documentary “RBG,” Ginsberg has rightly risen up to become a rock star to those who believe in liberal values and equal rights. “RBG” celebrates the Justice in a way that fans will love and detractors will scoff at, but it’s hard to argue that this isn’t a modern American hero. To get where she is and to overcome what she’s overcome, that takes something special. As such, this doc more than aptly showcases why Ginsberg is the icon that she is. It preaches to the choir, but it’s a sermon worth delivering.

We’ll see the standard biopic treatment later this year when “On the Basis of Sex” opens, but “RBG” is our early nonfiction entry into Ginsberg’s life. This doc is confirming her greatness, as opposed to investigating it. Multiple scenes show the rapturous response she gets in public. That being said, on occasion, the film does showcase some surprising information. One such example is showing how Ginsberg went from initially being one of the most moderate members of the Court to one of its most liberal, becoming known as “The Great Dissenter” in the process.

The documentary looks at Ginsberg and her life, from birth right up until the current day. At the age of 84, she’s a pop culture icon, but initially, Ruth was just a determined young woman at a time when girls weren’t expected to do so. In college, she met and married Marty Ginsberg, who supported her in a way few husbands ever did in those days. This would be a theme that continued throughout their lives, right up until his death in 2010. Time is also spent on her early legal work, her initial judicial appointment, and of course, her tap for the Supreme Court by Bill Clinton. Interspersed are talking heads, but also Ginsberg herself. The personal moments are where the doc often shines.

Having Ginsberg do a lot of the talking is a real boon for “RBG” overall. Co-directors Julie Cohen and Betsy West give the 84-year-old ample space to wax poetic. They show plenty of footage throughout her life, giving a younger Ginsberg a voice, but that’s not all. The octogenarian is front and center, commenting on her history. Especially amusing is when the filmmakers show her Kate McKinnon doing her on “Saturday Night Live.” It’s one of the few times we see her laugh, and boy does she ever get a kick out of it.

Inherently, any look at the Justice known to many as the “Notorious RBG” is going to have to lean into the fact that she’s reached this point of popularity. Considering how she does a lot of the heavy lifting here, how you feel about her will impact if this works for you or not. That being said, two of the most exciting moments come from people on the opposite end of the political spectrum. One is the periodic comments from Republican Senator Orrin Hatch, who defends her in a way almost unheard of these days. The other is a section detailing her friendship with conservative Justice Antonin Scalia. Both add layers to the documentary, as well as hint at how Ginsberg is the beloved figure she’s become.

Much of “RBG” is about her mind, but the sections are focusing on her and her late husband are movingly about the heart. They always spoke glowingly about each other, with Marty especially worshipping Ruth. Footage of speeches he gave, often in deference to her, are beautifully funny and a testament to their love. In fact, you can make the case that more of that would have served the documentary well. For a personal look at Ginsberg, there are times where more emotion could have helped elevate this from good to great.

Ginsberg fans will delight in “RBG,” that’s for sure. There’s not a ton of new information, but what’s put forward here is enjoyable done and natural to engage with. It’s one of the better docs of 2018 so far, though it remains to be seen if it has an Oscar hopes at all. For now, in this early part of the year, it’s worth considering as a potential Best Documentary Feature player. Mostly, it’s just a solid look at a towering figure in politics and pop culture.

“RBG” IS DISTRIBUTED BY MAGNOLIA PICTURES AND OPENS IN THEATERS ON MAY 4.

GRADE: (★★★)