Updated: Feb 6, 2020
Ruth Bader Ginsburg is an impressive woman who has made it her life's work to further the quest for true equality in America. The documentary RBG tells her story in a film that is very much preaching to the choir. While the filmmakers were able to get a hold of some really good archival material, as well as being given what appears to be total access to their subject, they keep things surface level only. There are definitely interesting anecdotes in this movie, but 95 minutes (minus the final credits) of praise and adulation got pretty tiring before the end.
RBG is famous for her dissenting opinions, but there are none to be found here. The movie hews a little too close to hagiography for my liking. That being said, some sections are quite captivating. I was interested in the audio excerpts from various cases she tried and the short backstories of people she helped. These were much more effective in showing the impact Ruth Bader Ginsburg has had than all the footage of her speaking in front of adoring fans ready to cheer her every word. The archival clips are intriguing, but they never gain context beyond “Ruth is amazing and here is an amazing thing she did.” RBG was unable to separate itself from the cult celebrity status that Ginsburg has achieved over the last decade.
The fact of her celebrity is fascinating enough to make up its own documentary. Here is an eighty-five year old Supreme Court justice who has her face on t-shirts and coffee mugs and has been embraced as a hero to people sixty years her junior. Instead of trying to understand how that has happened, RBG is content to list her accolades, as though that explains everything. The film gives examples of her popularity, through hashtags, merchandise, large and enthusiastic speech crowds and clips of Kate McKinnon playing her on Saturday Night Live. I suppose it is up to us to comprehend how she has suddenly become an important figure in popular culture, because the movie takes it as a given.
The structure that directors Julie Cohen and Betsy West have chosen is one of a little bit of showing followed by a whole lot of telling. They look at something she did, using old footage and interviews with those involved. Then, there are several minutes of people talking about what an incredible human being she is. Repeat for an hour and a half.
Do not get me wrong, it is not that I disliked RBG, I was just really disappointed by its lack of depth. There is so much they could have used Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s career to explore. Instead they made a shallow, if mildly enjoyable, biography. Ruth Bader Ginsburg is a fascinating person whose life is worthy of a far more thorough examination than this movie gives her. If you are already a fan, my complaints will be irrelevant to you. However, if you are not, there is likely nothing in this film that will help you see her in a different light.
2¾ out of 5
Directed by Julie Cohen and Betsy West