Dirs: Betsy West & Julie Cohen
Ruth Bader Ginsburg is not someone who’s particularly well-known here in the U.K. though I watch a lot of American films and TV so I have heard of her and knew a little of her reputation. A successful documentary should build interest and a new appreciation for a subject you may have known little about or had no particular interest in. On those grounds, this was hugely successful.
This is a feature-length documentary that details the life and career of U.S. Supreme Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, largely told in her own words, with contributions from those who have known her well and archival sources over her lifetime.
This documentary is clearly made by people who hold her in the highest esteem and they make no apologies for that, skillfully putting forth a case for their reverence that’s as clear and comprehensive as Judge Ginsburg’s own legal statements. Right from the opening titles, I noted the documentary is (as good as) entirely made by women, from the directors, producers, to the cinematographer, editor and composer, it’s a production lead by talented filmmakers who have a great reverence for their subject, a woman they have clearly found inspiring. She’s fully involved, not distanced from the production, the filmmakers filmed with her over the span of about two years, with intimate settings such as with her granddaughter and at the gym, insights into her private life that add a lot to rounding out the picture. Introducing us to her in the present, it then takes a logical and clear way of delving into her life, from her childhood, back and forth from past to present as it carefully unpacks her personal and professional life, bringing in aspects of the history of women and law in America as required to fully develop a comprehensive understanding of why Ruth Bader Ginsburg is so well-respected and the importance of her work in American law.
It’s interesting how Justice Ginsburg has come into prominence recently, with a dramatisation of her early career and life, ‘On The Basis of Sex’ starring Felicity Jones widely released last month. I saw Jones and Armie Hammer speaking about it on a chat show the other day and that served me well as a basis for seeing the documentary. I was especially taken with what they said about her late husband Marty, their relationship and his excellent reputation as a supportive husband. That proved to be an ideal lead into watching this as it had piqued my interest in learning more about this fascinating woman and see others confirm what was said about her husband.
Justice Ginsburg comes across as very balanced, the film highlights this and builds on it with an exploration of her professional life and her personal life that feels evenly distributed, though the two meet and jostle at times. It’s fascinating to see how from early college she balanced family and her studies, but developed a lifelong habit of burning the candle at both ends so she could give full attention to everything. She’s quite measured, her thoughts and words considered, respectful. Thus, when the film touches on a time when she spoke out against a certain presidential candidate, this is quickly dealt with not as the crux of her story, but rather as a rare mis-step, a forgivable human error. Balance and respect reign in her public persona, epitomised by her friendship with Justice Scalia. On this relationship, many collaborators give their insights, some speak of their own inability to be friends with someone they disagree so much with, yet Justice Ginsburg herself speaks so warmly of him as he does of her. There are no sharp edges evident to her personality, though there are hard lines, an emboldened and outspoken mind, which makes her very interesting to watch a film about.
Her late husband Marty is presented incredibly well too, though he died long before the film was made as so isn’t interviewed specifically for it, there are clips of him speaking at other times, letters, and testimony from those who knew him well. He’s described as the most supportive husband, who lifted her up both personally and in her career, being the more outgoing of the two of them and able to support her in the things that came less naturally to her. His sense of humour is spoken of and is clearly evident in clips.
Many mention how she doesn’t do small talk, how she speaks with clarity and focus, and this is proven in her interviews, though I do think she’s also evidently very comfortable with the filmmakers and so is a little less formal and more conversational when speaking directly to them for the film. Some of Marty’s sense of humour seems to have rubbed off on her after their 56 years of marriage. Her family and friends say she’s not funny, though with Marty gone she seems to be able to fill the void he’s left by inserting a little of his style of humour into some of her interviews and appearances.
There’s very little creativity or flare in the way the documentary is put together, it relies almost entirely on the strength of its subject. The one place it does do something a little different is in the way Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s words are transcribed on screen along with audio recordings from her court appearances, in lieu of actual footage from them. This is very effective and it doubles the focus on her words so that they have greater impact and clarity.
The last third or so of the film gets even more interesting as it looks at her recent history, often being the only woman on the Supreme Court and exercising her role more forcefully as the composition of Judges has changed, becoming known for filing dissenting opinions. This leads into touching on why she has experienced such prominence in recent years, as she’s gained icon status. Many law students (who I’d describe as fans) treat her like a rock star, have dubbed her the ‘Notorious RBG’, making her the star of memes and SNL sketches. It’s not a level of fame that legal figures generally experience on this side of the Atlantic, another aspect of what makes this such an interesting documentary, to see the level of interest people have in a figure who would possibly go unknown by the general public in most instances.
Contributors to the documentary include family, longtime friends, colleagues, and even former president Bill Clinton, whose inclusion is important as he was the president who nominated her to the Supreme Court. What’s good to see is that the contributors aren’t all unwavering supporters, there are a few who disagree with her, especially politically, which adds a little balance on that side of things too, though largely her praises are sung with very little reservation. The film seems to avoid getting dragged into political or legal arguments, sticking more to what can be held in common rather than anything divisive, wanting to garner praise for Ruth Bader Ginsburg and not draw criticism in her direction.
Having this documentary up for awards at the same time as the dramatisation ‘On The Basis of Sex’ is released is mutually beneficial to both films, they can serve as cross-promotion for each other. I hope that film really does bring to life these people and most especially their relationship as I think I’d like a film about their life and marriage, they seem like a couple you would enjoy being in the company of and spending two hours with.
She’s a fascinating woman whose life and career was absolutely ideal to be the topic of a documentary like this, she stands out as a strong, distinctive character.
RBG was nominated for a BAFTA though it lost out to ‘Free Solo’ (which I’m also very much looking forward to watching), and it’s nominated for two Academy Awards this coming weekend for Documentary Feature and the Original Song by Diane Warren.