RBG (West & Cohen, 2018)

I shall play the role of sober judge while writing this review, because Ruth Bader Ginsburg would want me to do nothing less. And so, while I admit RBG is highly entertaining and teeming with warmth for its subject, it’s also one of those documentaries that turns a Wikipedia entry into an audiovisual presentation. When it’s done shrewdly and with style (I’m thinking of Ava DuVernay’s 13th from a few years ago), then I think you can get away with it. The subject matter can also transcend choice of form if the story that needs telling is vital and relevant to the moment. Now, Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s newfound cult status is an interesting development in her long and storied career, there is no doubt. But is it an excuse to have her life’s story told now? I’m not sure about that. The only argument that would work is that she’s still alive and can tell her own story in the way she wants to. She can still stake a claim in the way her narrative unfolds to the masses. But even then, it would make more sense to spend a few more hours with her and hash out her legal victories in greater detail. If we still have her around, why not give us a three-hour celebration of her work rather than this bullet point précis? I’d say she’s earned three hours. She’s done so much to advance the cause of gender equality in America that even three hours seems like a pittance.

I’d say RBG is adequate if Ruth Bader Ginsburg and her accomplishments are total blanks to you, because as I alluded to earlier, it saves you the trouble of reading her Wikipedia entry from top to bottom. It synthesizes the work she’s done and gives her the chance to reminisce candidly on the road she followed to get to the Supreme Court. Stylistically, however, it doesn’t go the distance in honouring her legacy. There is something too rote about the presentation, such as in the way audio clips of her court addresses are merely subtitled on the screen against footage of an empty Supreme Court. It’s sensible, I suppose, but not exactly cinematic. And for someone who is now associated with edginess and (sigh) woke culture, that doesn’t exactly suit the whole Notorious RBG persona, does it? If you want to capture the essence of people’s love and respect for her, you might as well go for broke if you want to go for it at all.