Rachel Maddow declares her a “liberal hero,” right-wing radio pundits refer to her as “this witch, this evildoer, this monster” and her granddaughters call her “bubbe.” To her childhood friends, she’s still the girl they called “Kicky.” Brooklynites claim her as one of their own; Cornell and Harvard Law list her as an alumna. She’s “Professor Ginsburg” to her students, “Justice Ginsburg” to those who address her in our nation’s highest court, the “Notorious RBG” to her fans and, we assume, “Ms. Ginsburg” if you’re nasty. You may love or hate her, badmouth her or bow down to her. But you have to recognize the impact that Ruth Bader Ginsburg has made to the fabric of our country. It is practically incalculable and completely invaluable.
If nothing else, Julie Cohen and Betsy West’s docuportrait of this Women’s Rights pioneer and feminist icon lays out a strong case for considering the 85-year-old Supreme Court justice as a real-life American superhero. As the movie skips quickly through her teaching days, we see how her Gender-and-Law courses awakens her to the need for someone to stand up to institutional inequality. As it lightning-skims through her landmark early cases, we bear witness to Ginsburg’s eloquence in proving discrimination is wrong no matter the gender. Women, of course, needed her legal thrust and parry more, and the doc doubles as a history lesson of sexism of the 20th century, with her quote from a 19th-century abolitionist – “All I ask of my brethren is that they take their feet off our necks” – echoing through the decades into the 1960s and the 1990s.
And, for that matter, the divisive, borderline regressive moment we call 2018. Cohen and West weave in a love story involving the justice and her teen sweetheart/husband/wind-beneath-her-wings Martin (he died in 2010) for a personalizing aspect. But even if RPG didn’t emphasize that President Carter was the one who first brought her to the federal bench and that she was sworn in to the Supreme Court under President Clinton’s watch, it’s impossible not to view Ginsburg as a highly politicized figure – all saint or all scourge, always the ideological anti-Scalia. Orrin Hatch big-up or not, she will still be viewed primarily as a hero of the left by folks on both sides of the aisles. Which is too limiting. Ginsburg’s story is inspirational enough on its own without the side-claiming or stumping, given how it encompasses determination, aspiration (she was one of nine women in her ivy-league law class; a photo finds our petite young Jewish 24-year-old virtually engulfed by WASP-y Eisenhower-era bros), dignity, integrity and a noble sense of tilting at windmills long enough to see them finally collapse.
It’s tagging along on that incredible, eye-opening journey that makes RPG worth your time, and not, say, any cringeworthy pump-you-up montages or insistent need to coast off Ginsburg’s late-act reclamation as a meme-ready feminence grise badass. Far be it for us to tsk-tsk people who want to raise the Ruth – we need all the role models we can get right now, and an octogenarian Supreme Court judge who’s pissed off the proper people is more than deserving of a pop-vérité victory lap. You just wish the film itself was half as compelling as its subject; not defaulting to piano-tinkling sentimentality or old-people-sure-are-adorable cutesiness at every opportunity would have been a bonus as well. Still, this decent-enough doc is doing a service. If one young boy or girl see this and, instead of picking up arms, grasped a law book, grabbed a gavel and garnered the grit to know when a dissenting opinion doubled as a necessity, this movie will have more than justified its worship.