Review: RBG (Julie Cohen and Betsy West)



A figure so significant in American political history as Ruth Bader Ginsburg most certainly warrants a biodoc about them. And so it is that, in her later years, yet still a prominent voice of authority in the troubled U.S. political system, this remarkable woman receives hers in RBG, Julie Cohen and Betsy West's shamelessly hagiographic documentary that's arguably only as good as it is due to that undiluted reverence. Cohen and West bag an interview with their subject, and with many of those closest to her; their position thus allows for a moderate amount of self-reflection on Ginsburg's own part, though such subjectivity is largely negated by her customary reticence to air her opinions too candidly. Reverence, restraint, and a commitment to topicality and, therein, engagement - these are the qualities not of Ginsburg (necessarily) but of this movie, and it's arguably only as bad as it is due to them too.


I have no doubt that I know Justice Ginsburg better now than I did prior to watching this movie, though not in much depth. I have no doubt that I understand her history in the American legal system better now too, though not in much detail. RBG presents a casual, though exact, and carefully curated portrait of its subject, a 95-minute-odd overview of her life and career to date. At 85 years old herself, that's only just over a minute per year of that life, which Cohen and West attempt to make up for with sporadic specificity and a dedication to capturing the most seminal episodes, those that made Ginsburg the woman we now know and so broadly admire. This is a slick, standard documentary approach, one with considerable commercial appeal, but artistically vacuous, and counterproductively contributing to the perception of documentary as a staid, educational medium.


Thus, as diverting as this movie may be, it's wholly lacking in idiosyncratic content, or indeed anything to merit a second viewing. That's not strictly a criticism, but it's no endorsement either. Perhaps RBG's most notable moments occur when it grapples with the justice's peculiar, unexpected status in contemporary popular culture as a woman of increasingly defiant liberalism and protest against the dangerous strains of movement in her country's divided society; there's plentiful theoretical, cultural and sociological inquiry to be conducted here, yet Cohen and West resort to cringeworthy glorification of Ginsburg as a 'rock star', a moment of tone-deaf White Feminism that ought to come with its own Sara Bareilles soundtrack. This is the biodoc, the supposed defining document on the legacy of a figure so significant as Ruth Bader Ginsburg. If nothing else, I guess she seems to think it's pretty cute.

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