All Hail the Notorious RBG!

May 31, 2018


from Indy Week

RBG, the new documentary chronicling the life of Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, is way more fun than it might sound. Surprisingly bouncy and engaging, it charts Ginsburg’s gradual ascension from pioneering legal scholar to eighty-five-year-old pop-culture icon.

RBG is one of those rare docs that built enough momentum on its festival rounds (it opened Full Frame this year) to propel it onto the indie cinema circuit. It’s perfectly timed for a theatrical run through the heart of the American zeitgeist. With SNL skits and Notorious RBG T-shirts, Ginsburg has found a new generation of young admirers energized by #MeToo and America’s broader resistance. As the Supreme Court continues its rightward drift, Ginsberg has become an absolutely critical voice: our Great Dissenter.

Directors Betsy West and Julie Cohen take a mostly traditional approach, blending archival footage with interviews and some lively animations. RBG is structured around Ginsburg’s 1993 confirmation-hearing testimony. The narrative bounces off her words to flash back and forth in time. And what beautiful words they are. Ginsburg is a neurosurgeon of the English language, and we’re invited to simply admire the passion and precision of her opinions, majority or dissenting. Her most devastating arguments are presented in stylized subtitles so we can better appreciate their sheer poetry.

But RBG engages the heart as well. The most moving elements concern Ginsburg’s personal story. The daughter of Brooklyn immigrants, she stormed the manly citadels of 1950s Harvard and Columbia law schools while raising two children and caring for her cancer-stricken husband. Her stamina is impossible. Her kids estimate that she slept about two hours a night for years.

This is a deeply admiring biography, to be sure, but it never tips into hagiography. Between the narrative planks, we catch glimpses of Ginsburg’s severity and ambition. When asked to describe her mother as a parent, Ginsburg’s daughter says one word: exigent. Yeah, I had to look it up, too. It means “demanding,” basically, and the exchange provides a rather eloquent insight into the family dynamic.

Thanks to its spirit and its timing, RBG is more than just a documentary on a legal legend and feminist icon. It’s a film that reminds us how America is supposed to work—how real leaders emerge, contribute, and inspire. Forget those Avengers. This is the best superhero movie of the year.

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