Less a probing study of one of the towering figures of contemporary jurisprudence than a feature-length extension of the “Notorious RBG” meme, Julie Cohen and Betsy West’s hagiographic documentary about Ruth Bader Ginsburg provides few insights into the Supreme Court Justice’s legal mind, but it does offer plenty of opportunity to watch the diminutive octogenarian work out, show off her jabot collection, and perform a walk-on role in an opera. RBG devotes more time to Ginsburg falling asleep at the State of the Union address than it does to the entirety of her 13 years on the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals. In a scene that’s emblematic of Cohen and West’s relentlessly superficial approach to their subject, they sit Ginsburg down in front of a TV to watch Kate McKinnon’s wacky impression of her. Her thoughts? She finds it funny and not much like her actual personality.
RBG presents Ginsburg’s life as an empowerment story about a preternaturally gifted woman who’s bucked convention at every turn, fighting for gender equality in the courtroom and in her personal life while others marched for it in the streets. Cohen and West particularly focus on their subject’s unusually progressive marriage to Marty Ginsburg, a highly accomplished tax attorney who nevertheless felt totally comfortable playing a supporting role to his superstar wife. In one of the film’s more thoughtful passages, Cohen and West lay out the careful strategy Ginsburg devised in the 1970s as head of the ACLU’s Women’s Rights Project, which sought to expand constitutional protections against gender discrimination case by case and provision by provision, sometimes even taking on male clients to prove a point. The filmmakers interview some of the plaintiffs in Ginsburg’s landmark Supreme Court victories—for example, Sharron Frontiero, an Air Force lieutenant who challenged a discriminatory law that denied her certain housing benefits that male officers received automatically—showing how one doesn’t have to have attended Harvard Law School to fight for legal equality.
But the film rarely presents a clear analysis of these victories, reducing Ginsburg’s work to empty sloganeering. The judge’s famously ferocious dissent in Shelby County v. Holder, which gutted the Voting Rights Act of 1965, is reduced to a snappy phrase in which Ginsburg likens the Supreme Court’s action to “throwing away your umbrella in a rainstorm because you are not getting wet.” Perhaps a 100-minute documentary can’t be expected to offer a full exegesis of the complex legal issues involved in all of Ginsburg’s most important cases, but the film’s superficial treatment of the law is still maddening. Ginsburg has spent a lifetime pondering the rules that govern our society, but to watch RBG, one would think that her abilities extended to little more than doling out clever quips and being badass in attitude.