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‘RBG’ notorious indeed

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One wouldn’t necessarily expect an octogenarian Supreme Court justice to become a celebrated pop culture touchstone, but hey – you can’t go predicting what people are going to do.

So it is with Ruth Bader Ginsburg, whose life and career are brought to the big screen in “RBG,” a documentary directed by Julie Cohen and Betsy West. It’s an engaging work, albeit somewhat introductory. That’s not a slight – for those many people whose knowledge of her springs primarily from internet memes, this film will prove to be an educational experience.

Ginsberg herself is at the center of the action, one of the benefits of telling the story of someone who is still with us. And despite a diminutive stature – I seriously had no real concept of just how physically small she is – Ginsburg is a surprisingly magnetic presence on screen.

We learn about her early years growing up in Brooklyn as Ruth Bader, a smart, quiet presence in the schoolyard. She was an excellent student with designs on the Ivy League – and she got her way, matriculating at Cornell in the early 1950s. Even there, she stood out academically, if not socially. It was there that she met the love of her life, fellow student Martin Ginsburg.

After Cornell, Ruth and Martin wed and then headed off to law school at a little place called Harvard – you may have heard of it. She was one of just nine women in her class and faced all the obstacles that one might expect considering the time and place. But she made the Law Review her second year – a significant accomplishment for any student.

Yet when Martin – who was a year ahead of her – landed a job as a tax attorney for one of New York City’s most prominent law firms, Ruth went with him, finishing out her studies at Columbia. From there, it was on to academia; she taught law at Rutgers for a number of years.

It was in the 1970s when she started really making her mark in the courtroom, arguing a number of cases related to equal rights for women before the Supreme Court – and winning the vast majority of them. She became one of the seminal figures in the realm of women’s rights. That successful advocacy is what led her to the bench; she was appointed to the D.C. Court of Appeals by Jimmy Carter in 1980.

And then of course, she was nominated for the Supreme Court in 1993 by Bill Clinton and approved by an overwhelming majority. She was just the second female justice in the history of the court. Over the course of her 25 years as part of SCOTUS, she has become viewed by many as a liberal voice (though she was viewed as a moderate when confirmed). She has also developed a reputation for penning scathing, powerful dissents; those dissents – particularly in recent years – have played a large role in her being embraced by pop culture.

“RBG” doesn’t plumb the depths of Ginsburg’s character, instead content to largely stay close to the surface. In a lot of ways, the film feels a bit like a victory lap of sorts … and that’s OK. Sure, there’s a whiff of hagiography here and there, but it’s still an interesting and engaging look at one of the more important figures in recent American history.

Ginsburg herself is reserved; smiles are rare and laughter rarer still, yet there’s an undeniable sense of good humor about her. Those who know her best – her children and grandchildren, her childhood friends, a few colleagues – are universal in their celebration of her, both as an interpreter of the law and as a human being.

One of the central tenets of the film is her relationship with her husband Martin, who passed away back in 2010; the two were married for over 50 years. The love reflected in that relationship is a foundational piece of the film – it humanizes Ginsburg in a way that nothing else could. We already know she’s brilliant, but seeing her as someone’s Bubby (yes, that’s what her grandchildren call her, which is adorable and weird) makes her more than a berobed firebrand on the highest court in the land.

Again, “RBG” isn’t groundbreaking. There are no grand revelations made here. But it is an engaging look at the life of a trailblazing pioneer, one of the most important judicial figures of our lifetimes. Justice matters to her in a fundamental way; it’s been a central tenet of her entire adult life. She’s also possessed of a surprisingly dry sense of humor and a boundless, fierce love for her family. All in all, it’s safe to say that Ruth Bader Ginsburg has more than earned that “Notorious RBG” moniker.

[4 out of 5]

Last modified on Sunday, 15 July 2018 18:16

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