It is not every Supreme Court justice who garners an image in the general populace, but those that do tend to become polarizing by rote. The notables are usually recognized as strong proponents of conservatism, or liberalism, and by extension derive equal parts affection and disdain.
The end result is that the individual Justice often is compartmentalized, by both supporters and opponents; most recognize the Justice, but few get to know the individual. This documentary manages to address the latter while paying full servitude to the former. Ruth Bader Ginsburg becomes illuminated, and thus this film becomes revelatory.
An original entrant at The Sundance Film Festival, “RBG” is a serviceable documentary, delivering the subject through very familiar techniques — direct interviews, professional testimonials, file footage, and personal artifacts. Despite this well-trod path, the documentary becomes watchable as it moves between various aspects of Ginsburg’s story — her history, personal life, confirmation hearing, and current stature as a justice.
The other aspect elevating the narrative is Ginsburg herself. As we see she is a serious and driven individual, and while not exactly a withdrawn personality she is serious (while not being severe) and focused, and these personality traits have meant she has not been become known to many as “Ruth”. Because of her nature, learning about her as a person is revealing in the true sense of that term.
As Ginsburg is not at all gregarious nor prone to self-aggrandizing we see her husband, the respected attorney himself Martin Ginsburg, was an extroverted soul with an energetic personality. He was a forcible supporter of Ruth and a frequent promoter of her career. Hers was a career worthy of promotion.
She established herself as a fierce litigant for equal rights in the 1970s, but you see her casework was not of the variety of blithe activism we see today. After she wrote the brief for the Supreme Court case which decided women be granted equal protection under the 14th Amendment, Ginsburg appeared before The Court in the case of Frontiero v. Richardson.
Representing the ACLU, in conjunction with the Southern Poverty Law Center, Ginsburg successfully argued for Sharron Frontiero (interviewed here), a female Air Force Lieutenant who found she was denied the housing and medical benefits that all the male servicemen received. Later Ginsburg bolstered both her career and her message of equal rights when she took the case of a male who was denied the social security benefits of his deceased wife. Widows at the time were granted these benefits.
Possibly the most compelling scene came from her confirmation hearing in 1993. Sen. Orrin Hatch (yes, he was already a major fixture that far back) declared from the stand that while he opposes many of Ginsburg’s positions, and that she probably opposed many of his, he had such professional respect for her that he would support her nomination. (She went on to be confirmed with a vote of 96-3.) In the same fashion, her closest relationship on the court was with the boldly conservative Antonin Scalia.
“RBG” is a film that probably will not change minds on the ideological scale, but it does become educational as we get the chance to learn about one of the important minds in our government.
“RBG” is released in theaters in limited release. Locations and showtimes can be found at the official site.
view the trailer: