I admit, I don't much like inspirational biopics or their factual counterparts, inspirational biodocs. Where some viewers enjoy basking in the admirable qualities of a real-life hero or heroine, I'd always prefer just to see a good story on screen. So I'm pleased to report that RBG, a documentary about Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg from directors Julie Cohen and Betsy West, has a fine story to go with its dose of civics-class uplift.
Cohen and West open with right-wing sound bites decrying the progressive-minded Ginsburg as "a zombie" and "un-American." Then they show us the justice herself: an 85-year-old dynamo lifting tiny weights at the gym with an expression of steely-eyed determination. While she doesn't play self-consciously to the camera, Ginsburg has an incisive voice and a flair for the subtle zinger that make her a great subject. The audience is riveted immediately.
The filmmakers embrace traditional biography format, tracing Ginsburg's evolution from child of immigrants to Harvard Law School student to pioneering feminist lawyer. Photos and home-movie snippets show us a radiant, driven young woman whose rise from Brooklyn to the bench could only, as Ginsburg herself puts it, have happened in America. Clips from Ginsburg's 1993 confirmation hearings serve as a continuing thread, allowing her to narrate some of her story herself.
Most illuminating — and, to younger viewers, educational — are the segments dealing with the gender-discrimination cases that Ginsburg argued before the Supreme Court in the 1970s, when she directed the American Civil Liberty Union's Women's Rights Project. Interviews with the plaintiffs — a female service member denied a housing allowance for her husband; a young widower refused survivor benefits that would have helped him care for his child — give human faces to the effects of everyday discrimination.
We also learn about Ginsburg's stepwise, strategic approach to ending those gender barriers, which may surprise those who see her as a firebrand. Using a simple graphic, Cohen and West show how the changing ideological make-up of the Supreme Court transformed Ginsburg from a centrist in the 1990s into the "Great Dissenter" of today.
RBG becomes a fluffier portrait toward the end, when it focuses on the millennial fans who have turned the justice into a meme ("Notorious RBG"), rather than on the scathing dissents that gained her that reputation. We never learn much about the evolution of Ginsburg's thought over the decades — and this is clearly a woman who does a lot of thinking (one of her nearly lifelong habits is laboring at her desk until 4 a.m.).
But the filmmakers fill in the gaps in their portrait with endearing color. We learn about the steadfast support Ginsburg received from her husband, Marty; about her close friendship with late conservative colleague Antonin Scalia; about her passion for the opera. True, maybe we don't need to see the justice reacting multiple times to Kate McKinnon's broad impersonation of her on "Saturday Night Live," but her bemusement is priceless.
Fascinating, though never directly addressed, is the contrast between Ginsburg's reserved self-assurance and the gushy, self-conscious demeanor of many of her young enthusiasts. When her law-student granddaughter suggests that Ginsburg read her fan mail for a "confidence boost," one gets the sense that this octogenarian, who remembers how it felt to be one of only nine female students in a law school class, solved her self-esteem problems a while ago, because she had to.
Will a new generation of activists grow into the same confidence? If nothing else, RBG serves as an inspiration.