Barely five foot tall and almost two decades past the US retirement age, Ruth Bader Ginsburg has, in recent years, somehow added the title of ‘pop culture icon’ to her already impressive, often trailblazing, curriculum vitae. It is this remarkable journey that drives the narrative of Betsy West and Julie Cohen’s inspiring biographical documentary, which explores how a Jewish woman from Boston rose against discrimination to become only the second woman appointed to the Supreme Court. Contrary to Justice Ginsburg’s own reputation, when it comes to titular adoration, this is a film with little by way of dissent.
Though now heralded in terms as wildly excitable as feminist inspiration and the defender of liberalism – much to her own surprise: ‘I am 84 years old and everybody wants to take a picture with me’ – Ginsburg has faced opposition at every turn in her journey to the present day. The film opens with aggressive, unattributed, quotes from her detractors, including a recognisable Donald Trump, but it is the wider currents of gender inequality that West and Cohen trace Ginsburg’s life against. At Harvard, she was one of only nine women to win a place in the five-hundred-strong School of Law and yet found herself asked by the Dean how she could justify taking a seat that ought to have belonged to a man.
Such is just one of many horrific revelations to be found throughout what is a thoroughly engaging documentary. It is too easy to forget that as late as 1970 it was perfectly legal for employers to fire women for the simple ‘crime’ of becoming pregnant. Against this backdrop, Ginsburg remains a stoic and totally compelling screen presence. She speaks with the measured composure of one who thoroughly considers all she is about say prior to doing so and breathes stimulating insight. As an interviewee, she proves to be impeccable company. There’s sadness in her recollection of the loss of Marty, her husband and a life staple for over sixty years, in 2010, but humour too in her response to witnessing Kate McKinnon’s Saturday Night Live impression of her for the first time. Bizarrely, this petite, notionally austere lady is widely known by the rap-inspired nickname: ‘the Notorious R.B.G.’
It was the increasing frequency of Ginsburg’s dissents against Supreme Court rulings that propelled her to meme fame, although perhaps it took a take down of Trump, prior to his election, for RBG to become notorious. Both are covered in the film’s broad agenda. To boot, we see Ginsburg’s comprehensive exercise regime here and learn of her dubious sleeping habits, or, rather, lack of them. She is, we are repeatedly assured, something of a superhero. If the film has a fault, it is that the awe its creators feel for their subject occasionally robs it of necessary balance. There is little explanation in the film, for instance, as to why Ginsburg’s detractors feel so strongly in opposition. Further still, there is a rising sense as the credits approach that complex political battles are being painted in superficial brushstrokes. Ginsburg has an aura of intellectuality that is not quite within the film’s grasp. That said, this is not a biography that wants for insight.
Where West and Cohen best succeed is in capturing the immense empathy that has driven Ginsburg’s fiercest affectations. RBG is not only a gripping account at her life but also a poignant look a the battle for equality she has, in many ways, been integral to. With archival footage deployed between succinct interviews, the film benefits from an eloquent and thoughtful delivery.