I don’t review many documentaries here for a number of reasons. It’s hard to argue most of them are the most cinematic of art forms and as such are frequently shunted down on my list of films to see. Also, I don’t really feel the need to see them to review them here because the quality of documentaries can generally be described less by Sturgeon’s law than by a vaguely Bell curve shape, except so tall in its center it more closely resembles a willy. A mass of mediocre comfort food that filmmakers have to really try to fuck up but also rarely rises above that. There’s a reason you’ll regularly see Rotten Tomatoes littered with new 90+% documentaries and it is not because we are in some golden age (though there is something to be said about the proliferation of digital recording methods making it easier to produce them on basically every conceivable human and topic).
In a time where abuses of power and the awfulness of our (speaking here as an American, not that any other nation should be quick to cast any stones here) court system make for daily stories and seemingly weekly documentaries and true crime series, for once, here’s a documentary focusing on a positive force for change in the system. RBG is the bafflingly named doc telling the life story of civil rights lawyer turned Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg. I get what they are going for (more on that in a moment), but since I’ve had to explain each and every time what the title means to others (and I had to look it up myself the first time), it just comes off as another victim of our trend towards needless use of initials at the expense of language.
Her story however is an important one and a full one, Ginsberg making for both an engaging subject on camera and in study as it traces her struggles to overcome the prejudices against women at every corner of her law career as she fought for equal rights for them. The film proceeds mostly linearly (that’s good) intercut with scenes of the present day, and while that latter bit usually annoys me, the film does a good job with framing it, smartly choosing to base a lot of the flashbacks off of instead moments from her Senate confirmation hearing and occasionally moments with her granddaughter. It naturally peppers in moments of humor and keeps the film from ever feeling too dry and yet never loses sight of its main purposes of showing who she was, the relationship with her supportive late husband, and most importantly the vitalness of the work she did in the 70s and has continued to this day.
Well maybe never is a bit of an exaggeration as the film does lose its way towards the end as it becomes clear that the title is part of the film’s sad attempt to be hip. For Ginsberg is not just an important feminist (granted feminism is not a word that I’m even sure that the movie used because I think it is too afraid of offending people) figure who did so much to advance the equal rights agenda and reach law’s highest office, she’s also The Great Dissenter and something of a meme for the young liberal movement. While Ginsberg herself seems mostly amused by this and just happy people are engaged, the film tries to get in on the joke as they trot out the internet types who have turned her into this meme and whose each and every word is cringeworthy. Yes, it’s nice that an 80+ year old woman has resonated with a younger generation, that doesn’t make the way the film engages with it any less Buzzfeed worthy. The opposition figures who they have managed to get such as Orrin Hatch and who have generally spoke of her with respect even when disagreeing with her, get shunted off to quick throwaway lines because policy matters are apparently less interesting than repeatedly showing off stupid photoshopped images or watching bad SNL skits (so, SNL skits). It’s time it could have better spent with its surface level analysis of “look at the how all these things have improved, and yet look at everything currently being dismantled” that Ginsberg herself seems more interested in.
Still, it’s a very worthwhile documentary to seek out. Even as it sags at the end and left me wishing for a bit more substantive content (not fluff) in that section, it still felt comprehensive and moves along quick. It’s hopeful even in the face of dark times and while I’m not sure if it rises above the typical documentary pack, it comes close.