Given that Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg is -- you guessed it -- notorious as one of the more liberal justices on the federal bench today, it seems unlikely that many conservatives would watch the otherwise competently made documentary RBG and consider it a particularly objective portrait. And since I am rather liberal myself, I'm not sure how much weight it carries for me to insist that it is.
That said, co-directors Julie Cohen and Betsty West go out of their way, in this surprisingly subdued look at the woman and her extraordinary life's work, to note her longstanding friendship with her ideological opposite on the Supreme Court, Justice Antonin Scalia. And it's easy to be of two minds about this. As one of Ginsberg's respectful associates marvels, "I don't think I could be close friends with a right-wing nutcase." It's a line that gets a laugh. But, there is another way to look at it: considering the impediments of the extreme divisiveness of the country today, maybe this kind of friendship is an ideal to which the entire country should aspire?
After all, Ginsberg, as it turns out, has multiple key conservatives who disagree with her on just about everything, but find themselves nevertheless offering her respect. This film features kind words about her from Utah Senator Orin Hatch, a Republican who voted to confirm her in 1993. Quite extraordinarily, the Senate at the time voted to confirm her 96 to 3.
And in all likelihood, you'll have no idea how much work Justice Ginsberg has done to change America, specifically for women, long before she came to be on the Supreme Court, until you see RBG. She was always quiet, unassuming, and had a demeanor that belied her stealth ability to affect change. Incidentally, she is seen onscreen here noting that real, "enduring change, comes step by step." People on both sides of really any issue would do well to keep that in mind.
In any case, RBG will fill you in on Ginsberg being one of only nine women in her class at law school in the fifties; the five out of six cases she won arguing before the Supreme Court in the seventies and eighties; and how she became an icon of dissent in the 21st century. She brings up examples of shockingly horrible ways in which ways women were treated in otherwise polite company when she first started out, and this film illustrates with a somewhat quiet fascination how she played key roles in events that changed that.
RGB is also honest about her being human and not infallible -- such as when she made the clear mistake of speaking out against Donald Trump during his campaign. You can be rightly furious at this president all you want, but it doesn't change the role of a Supreme Court Justice and how inappropriate that was -- not to mention how much it undermines any work to resist him and policies.
Amazingly, it's Orin Hatch then seen coming to her defense, reminding us that nobody's perfect and everyone makes mistakes. Again, a lesson in mutual respect.
Honestly, I expected, or at least wanted, RBG to be a more overtly entertaining movie than it is. The information contained therein is essential, to be sure. But as a movie, RBG is occasionally a little dry. Then again, its subdued tone matches that of Justice Ginsberg herself, who proves not quite to the task of living up to all the "Notorious RBG" memes (the perpetrators of which are also interviewed), much as she is clearly amused by them.
How you respond to RBG as a movie is pretty much down to however you already respond to her as a person. I watched this movie, feeling both fearful of her age taking her off the Supreme Court when a madman could replace her with someone her ideological opposite at best, and a nutcase at worst; and hopeful as I watched clips of her working out with a trainer every morning. Someone else might just as easily watch this and feel the opposite on all counts. That is, unless they are like the Republicans featured here, who can still respect someone with whom they disagree. If there is any lasting legacy of this film, and of this woman, it should be that.