RBG is an unapologetic valentine to Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, but a sharp and spiky one too — a celebration of the scrunchie-wearing octogenarian not just as a pop-culture folk hero and millennial meme but as a wife, a warrior, and a true iconoclast, famed for her fierce legal mind and the cutting wit of her dissenting opinions. (Though it also quickly lays waste to the lie that she’s some kind of wild-eyed left-wing zealot; an analysis of her decades-long voting record lands her squarely at the center of the court.)
Born June Ruth Bader in Flatbush, Brooklyn, in 1933, she graduated from Cornell and within two years made the rarefied ranks of the Harvard Law Review, even with a husband and young daughter already at home — and a school dean who habitually asked the few women in her class what they had done to deserve a spot that could have gone to a man.
RBG doesn’t stint on the moments that have contributed to the pleasing myth of Ginsburg as a geriatric badass, a sort of pint-size superhero in a knitted lace collar: holding planks and doing tricep dips in her daily workouts; welcoming her connection to the legendary late rapper who spawned the nickname Notorious RBG (they’re both Brooklyn kids, and dreamers); reading excerpts from several of her now-iconic Supreme Court dissents. Filmmakers Julie Cohen and Betsy West even get their subject to sit down and watch Kate McKinnon’s giddy, smack-talking impression of her on Saturday Night Live. (Ginsburg calls it “marvelously funny,” even if it resembles her “not one bit.”)
But the film also walks methodically, if swiftly, through her first encounters with the highest court in the land — as a Rutgers professor who fundamentally altered the rule of law in gender equality by winning five out of six landmark victories regarding fair pay, housing, and education (including a 1975 case she fought for a widowed single dad denied Social Security benefits that were, at the time, preserved for women).
And it doesn’t skimp on her personal life either, particularly her romance with fellow Harvard student Martin Ginsburg that spanned more than half a century and was clearly the love story of a lifetime both of them. Martin, she recalls, “was the first boy I ever knew who cared that I had a brain.” He’s also the one who campaigned tirelessly to get her on the short list for the high court nomination in 1993, wildly tooting the horn his shy, quiet wife hardly felt comfortable even holding.
RBG spills over with talking heads, from Gloria Steinem to Bill Clinton to Ginsburg’s own Harvard Law graduate granddaughter — and even takes the 85-year-old sternly to task for her tradition-flouting public criticism of Donald Trump weeks before the 2016 election — but the presence that matters most is Ginsburg’s own: tremulous and sometimes hesitant with age now, but still a tiny dynamo of undimmed intelligence, pure will, and truth to power. A-