I regret that I am so late in reviewing “RGB,” the documentary about the life of Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, as it is one of the best films of the year. Co-directed by Julie Cohen and Betsy West, “RBG” not only is a moving and inspiring portrait of Justice Ginsburg, but it is packed with information about and exploration of major issues in the context of her time, with clear expression of her contributions toward advancing legal rights both before her Supreme Court appointment in 1993 and then via her votes in the court’s decisions.
The film colorfully details her life and her rise with vital liberal positions. Many fearful of the court’s swing to the right under President Trump say that they wish she could live forever. Now 85 and a cancer survivor, she continues to be energetic, as evidenced by her regular physical workouts that might challenge the most athletic of us.
There is much footage culled from her interviews and platform appearances, and she comes across as a likable, often amusing and, more importantly, a profound thinker about the law. Included is evidence of her affable friendship with the late Justice Antonin Scalia despite their polarized viewpoints. We also see students responding enthusiastically to the advice she gives in her speeches.
Most touching is the relationship she had with her late husband, Martin Ginsburg, who from the very beginning of their dating as students appreciated her for her mind as well as her looks (she was very pretty) and was ultra supportive of her career aspirations. Clips showing their amusing interplay during an interview demonstrate their togetherness. His death after their 56-year-long marriage was a major blow that she had to deal with, and his loving note to her from his hospital bed could make one tearful.
A key element in the film is reportage about the victories she won for the right of women to be treated equally. The film does an excellent job in running snippets of text on screen that deftly summarize the legal points involved.
Many notables contribute, including Bill Clinton, who talks about how she quickly won him over and made him decide to appoint her to the Supreme Court. Excerpts from her facing the Senate in her confirmation hearing reveal how her candor, legal principles and expertise impressed even Republicans, such as Orrin Hatch. Others, among them activist Gloria Steinem and legal expert Nina Totenberg, talk impressively about Ginsburg’s contributions.
The film includes Ginsburg’s gaffs, falling asleep during a State of the Union address, and more importantly her mistake of denouncing Donald Trump, a departure from the judicial need to stay out of politics, for which she apologized. But this remains worrisome beyond the account in the film. What if an issue involving Trump comes before the court while she is still on the bench? Most likely she would be pressed to recuse herself.
The broad scope of the film coupled with the deeply engaging close-up of the distinguished jurist’s life makes this a documentary of rare power. It is a must-see for anybody who cares about the law and the fate of our nation. A Magnolia Pictures release. Reviewed July 15, 2018.