‘RBG’ Film Review: Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s Life Makes for a Snappy But Surface-Level Documentary

This film on the legendarily “notorious” jurist is proficient but also prosaic

"RBG" / Magnolia Pictures

Thanks to the unpredictable whims of the internet, there’s no telling where the next pop-cultural obsession will come from. In recent years, medieval portraiture, a tragic trip to the zoo (RIP Harambe), the rat-and pizza-slice-infested subways of NYC, and the celebratory queering of a horror character meant to symbolize grief and extreme parental resentment have all served as unlikely Twitter sensations.

In that context, the Supreme Court doesn’t seem too far-fetched as the source of enduring virality. (An Etsy search for “RBG” — Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s initials — today turns up more than 2,000 listings for shirts, mugs, pins, toys and other items commemorating the 85-year-old justice.)

Arriving months before an awards-season biopic about the jurist starring Felicity Jones (the heinously titled “On the Basis of Sex,” written by Ginsburg’s nephew), the new documentary “RBG” attempts to humanize the woman behind the “Notorious R.B.G.” meme but ends up mostly printing the legend instead.

Directed by Julie Cohen (“The Sturgeon Queens”) and TV producer Betsy West, “RBG” is a proficient but prosaic overview of Ginsburg’s (exceptional) life and (world-improving) accomplishments. If you know enough to be impressed by the Supreme Court justice to check out this doc, you’ve probably heard at least a few of the oft-told statistics and anecdotes that burnish the RBG myth here.

Ginsburg was one of nine women in a class of 500 at Harvard Law, cared for a baby and a sick husband while besting her male classmates there, graduated at the top of her class (tied for first place) at Columbia Law, and couldn’t find a job when she graduated in 1959. She was a product, then a spearhead, of feminism’s second wave, eventually winning five of the six court cases she argued before the Supreme Court in defense of gender equality.

The lawsuits she picked up were part of a tactical plan to dismantle legal discrimination against women. In one of the relatively few revealing interview scenes, Ginsburg likens explaining that sexism exists to the nine male justices in the nation’s highest court to being a kindergarten teacher.

Friends and family describe her as reserved, serious, and even-keeled. (In archival footage, we see her declare with the utmost humility, “The law is something I deal with well.”) That’s pretty much the figure we see, as Cohen and West follow the monkish Ginsburg home, where she’s known to work into the wee hours of the night, as well as to the gym, the opera, and a sculpture garden. A glimpse into her closet full of lace collars is almost worth the price of admission, but I wish the filmmakers had asked the visually distinctive justice, whose love of graphically bold earrings evidently goes back decades, her thoughts on the role of feminine accoutrements in a field as iconographically austere as the law.

Ginsburg’s sobriety falls away when discussing two topics: opera and her deceased husband Marty Ginsburg, whose all-consuming love for his brilliant wife translated into supporting her dreams and ambitions, from housework to campaigning for a Supreme Court seat on her behalf. (To quote another meme, Get you a man who can do both.)

The talking heads that “RBG” line up are certainly impressive, including Bill Clinton, who nominated Ginsburg to the Court in 1993, and Gloria Steinem, who calls her “the closest thing to a superhero I know.” (None of the other Supreme Court justices were interviewed.) Irin Carmon, who co-wrote the “Notorious RBG” bestseller, wisely notes of Ginsburg’s unexpected late-in-life fame, “Who is more disdained or told to go away than an older woman?”

But in spite of the significant run time dedicated to a string of cases that made Ginsburg’s career as a feminist legal activist, it’s difficult to get a full sense of significance of her case work in the 1970s or her role in the women’s struggle at large.

After a spirited first hour, “RBG” slumps in the final third act as it focuses on Ginsburg the social-media icon. Between superficial mentions of social-media scandals, Cohen and West offer the cinematic equivalent of small talk, as we learn that the justice loves handing out “Notorious R.B.G.” t-shirts as gifts and see Ginsburg laughing at Kate McKinnon’s impression of her on “Saturday Night Love.”

Starkly lacking, then, is any insight into what the justice makes of her recent fame and what that cult-like adoration means for feminist progress today. Nor do we learn why she’s called the epithets that make up the first words of the film: “witch,” “monster,” “evildoer.” Surely Ginsburg is far more interesting than her devotees, her enemies, or this film make her out to be.