RBG (2018) – dir. Betsy West & Julie Cohen

One of the arguable drawbacks of the internet is the infringement of privacy. By having more access to information than ever before, we tend to see more of others, and show off more of ourselves, than we necessarily want or intend to. This is to say nothing of government-sanctioned spying, or malicious hackers. But we tend to be able to communicate aspects of ourselves and others that might not have seen so much scrutiny if technology had not shined a light on us. Particularly in the realm of politics, consistency and purity are all but mandatory–at least for young liberals. And as learning about our leaders and candidates becomes easier, finding decent public figures is tougher and tougher every day.

So, someone like Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg is a marvel of sorts. A progressive, staunch advocate for equal rights–particularly for women–who climbed to the highest court of the United States with consistent bipartisan support, Justice Ginsburg should make for a fascinating subject. And yet, Betsy West’s and Julie Cohen’s feature-length profile RBG is an astonishingly unimaginative approach to one of the luminaries of modern U.S. politics. A pandering, shapeless, incurious look at one of the most accomplished civic figures of our time, RBG has a lot of heart, and is clearly in awe of Justice Ginsburg, but never delivers anything more than a bland love letter to someone who deserves a lot more.

RBG won’t tell anyone anything that couldn’t be skimmed from a Wikipedia article. A child of Jewish immigrants in Brooklyn who is pushed to do well, and influenced significantly by defense attorneys during the HUAC hearings, Ruth Bader is spurred to go to college and pursue law. There, she meets Marty Ginsburg, with whom she is married for over 50 years. Marty supports Ruth as they both pursue law, and Ruth supports him and their child while she’s in law school, and while Marty battles cancer. Rtuh becomes a professor a law professor at Rutgers and Columbia. She argues some really important cases, is appointed as an appellate judge on the D.C. circuit, and is eventually appointed to the Supreme Court of the United States by Bill Clinton, confirmed in the Senate 96-3 as only the second woman to serve on the Supreme Court. From there, she serves as a liberal centrist who often unifies her fellow justices, before coming to be known as the “great dissenter” and leftist advocate when the courts become more conservative starting around Bush v. Gore. Basically, the film plays out as a run-of-the-mill greatest hits compilation, checking off anything of significance.

Perhaps this is not the fault of West or Cohen. When we do get glimpses of Justice Ginsburg, she’s shown to be a fairly reserved, excruciatingly modest woman. And why wouldn’t she be? After all, her vast accomplishments speak for themselves. When the film tries to pry, we’re told that Justice Ginsburg tends to be very quiet. Seriously. If RBG stresses anything about Justice Ginsburg, the film goes on and on and on about how mild-mannered she is. Oh, and she loves the opera. West and Cohen attempt to find Justice Ginsburg through her husband, her Harvard Law grad granddaughter, her various living colleagues, and even her improbably close friendship with hard line conservative Antonin Scalia, all of which are undeniably moving to some degree, but the film never really tries to challenge this. There’s no real arc or complication. Even when Justice Ginsburg is at odds with her colleagues, the film glosses over any genuine tension. And maybe Justice Ginsburg is just that beloved–hell, even Orin Hatch can’t hate her–but if that’s true, then the film can’t help but suffer from her own likability.

In fact, RBG only really shines towards the conclusion, when we’re with Justice Ginsburg in the present day. Her husband has passed, her own health is in decline, and her influence more necessary to the progressive cause in the age of Donald Trump. Though Justice Ginsburg is doing her best to stay healthy and active, she is 85 years old. She could pass away before Donald Trump’s first term–who may very well get a second. There’s something to be said for someone how much someone can take, and how much someone like Justice Ginsburg owes to a cause. But the film doesn’t really want to concern itself with such pressing inquiries, not when we can learn about the inception of the nickname “the Notorious RBG.” Because Justice Ginsburg might not see herself in Kate McKinnon’s Saturday Night Live impression of her, but only a fool could overlook the similarities between Justice Ginsburg and Biggie Smalls.

Perhaps this would at all be forgivable if RBG was not so bankrupt in the execution. West and Cohen don’t put forth any effort into the actual storytelling beyond making text appear on screen in fancy ways. Because what’s more cinematic than reading something meant to be watched? The bulk of RBG is having people look into the camera, and deliver tidbits while lightly editorializing on–read: lionizing–Justice Ginsburg and her work. And this could maybe work if the film had a quick rhythm, but Carla Gutierrez’s rhythm and structure is so lilting and slapdash that the film barely coheres beyond a loosely chronological retelling of Justice Ginsburg’s life. RBG may cover several decades, but given how little color is afforded to any given event, this should not seem so much longer than the actual duration.

Rather than truly confront or attempt any semblance of conflict, RBG would rather revel in what a swell lady Justice Ginsburg is. Rather than spend much time explaining why her values are so vital to her, or explain the choices she had to make, or explore any sense of risk, the film serves only as a victory lap that pays lip service to how difficult Ginsburg is. And because we are the beneficiaries of her efforts, that can’t be understood if all the film serves to do is celebrate her legacy. West and Cohen paint Ginsburg as a natural, which is impressive, but not realistic as a role model. We get the rewards without any of the work. And because the film is so poorly made, RBG is hard to feel good about beyond the plain text. And to be sure, Justice Ginsburg is a terrific personality, one that shines through, and whose legacy is more than a little notable. That a movie of any kind has difficulty living up to her is not, in and of itself, a problem. That RBG never seems to try living up to the film’s eponymous subject, however, is.

Rating – 4.5/10


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