'RBG': Film Review | Sundance 2018

The Book of Ruth.

Octogenarian Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg gets a fully briefed profile in Betsy West's and Julie Cohen's biographical documentary.

We are living in an era full of sound and fury, not to mention bitterness, hysteria and rampant incivility. So there is something deeply soothing about RBG, a documentary that, like its subject, Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, is eminently sober, well-mannered, highly intelligent, scrupulous and just a teeny-weeny bit reassuringly dull.

It makes one nostalgic for the good old days when most important public figures, and the documentaries about them, were comfortingly soporific. Not that veteran TV and doc producer-directors Betsy West's and Julie Cohen's methodically constructed profile doesn't have its funny, light-hearted moments. Paradoxically, one of the best is Ginsburg's children, Jane and James Ginsburg, reminiscing about how as kids they used to keep a thin scrapbook titled something like Times When Mom Laughed. There weren't many entries, they recall. But they say it smilingly, clearly feeling deep affection for their parent, and viewers are likely to empathize with a similar warm regard for this fine-grained work and its subject, a living secular saint deserving all the tributes heaped on her here, some from surprising quarters.

Adroitly edited by Carla Gutierrez so as to have an even, steady flow as well as distinct thematic components, the material is roughly organized around 1993-shot footage of Ginsburg's confirmation hearing before the Senate where she was grilled by Senators Joe Biden, Orrin Hatch and Ted Kennedy, among others. Ginsburg's own discussion then of the key cases she brought to the Supreme Court in the 1970s, such as Frontiero v. Richardson and Weinberger v. Wiesenfeld, in turn prompts detailed explanations of how each case fit into a larger legal strategy to establish more equal rights for both women and men by tackling discrepancies in employers' benefits and social security entitlements.

Time and again colleagues speak in awed terms about Ginsburg's quickness of intellect and natural perspicacity, her ability to spy strategies and arguments before they had even gotten to grips with the bare essentials of the case at hand. Old friends from childhood, Cornell, Harvard and Columbia and her early days as a rising lawyer limn a portrait of someone doggedly determined but never attention-seeking, a dark horse who steadily rose to prominence through sheer meritocratic effort and commitment to justice.

It did help that behind this great woman was a man willing to remind her to go to bed, able to manage the meals (her kids and friends are hilarious about what a lousy cook she is) and cheer her on with total commitment. Her late husband, Marty Ginsburg, was clearly a mensch of legendary proportions, an ebullient wit and highly regarded tax lawyer himself who had the generosity of spirit and foresight to recognize his wife's exceptional talents and support her all the way, campaigning tirelessly to get her name on the list of candidates Bill Clinton was drawing up in his first year in office to fill vacancies on the Supreme Court bench. Clinton remembers with amusement how she nailed her first interview with him, intellectually seducing him with her legal acumen.

The film brims with absorbing anecdotes like that. Once again, in these times of extreme polarization in politics, it's cheering to hear how the "ladylike" good manners Ginsburg learned from her strong single mother contributed to her ability to forge friendships with conservatives like associate Justice Antonin Scalia — who disagreed with her philosophically on nearly every point but still grew to feel a great, platonic affection for her right up until his death.

Given that so many of the subjects interviewed here discuss Ginsburg's shyness and diffidence, it's not surprising that she remains something of an elegant enigma even by the end of the film. Sure, it's fun to see her hanging out at home with her granddaughter Clara Spera, laughing at Kate McKinnon's widely inaccurate impersonation of her on Saturday Night Live, or showing off her collection of ornate collars to wear with her robes while on the bench. ("And this one," she says handling a black-ribbon-and-rhinestone-encrusted number, "is for dissents.")

She also likes opera (snatches of which are woven smoothly throughout the film) and working out while wearing a T-shirt emblazoned with the words "Total Diva," but ultimately there is a reserve that the film never quite penetrates. One can't help wondering why, for example, she felt such a determination to succeed in law as opposed to any other then-male-dominated field. Given that she's such a workaholic, were there any sacrifices she had to make in her personal life that she regretted? And what does she really think of the Notorious B.I.G., whose handle has been amusingly reassigned to her by playful meme makers on the Internet. 

When asked toward the end of the film if she regrets not resigning while Obama was still president so that someone similarly liberal could have been appointed in her place, she hesitates for just a nanosecond or two, long enough to suggest that yes, of course, the thought did occur to her — before replying that she intends to serve for as long as she can still perform her duties fully. Long may that be, Madame.

Venue: Sundance Film Festival (Documentary Premieres)
Production companies: A CNN Films, Storyville Films presentation
Cast: Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Jane Ginsburg, James Ginsburg, Clara Spera, Gloria Steinem, Nina Totenberg, Sharron Frontiero, Stephen Wiesenfeld, Irin Carmon, Shana Knizhnik, Bill Clinton, Ted Olson, Harry Edwards, Orrin Hatch, Eugene Scalia, Bryant Johnson
Directors-producers: Betsy West, Julie Cohen
Executive producers: Amy Entelis, Courtney Sexton
Director of photography: Claudia Raschke
Editor: Carla Gutierrez
Music: Miriam Cutler
Sales: Cinetic

97 minutes