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Thursday, April 19, 2018

AFF Review: RBG is inspiring and entertaining

For better or for worse, we find ourselves living in a version of America in which celebrities are politicians and politicians are celebrities. In the last few years, one of the surprising additions to this group is the 84-year old Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, who has amassed a huge following in her later years from young progressives. It's not surprising, then, that now is the perfect time to do a deep dive into her history and achievements as the world wonders how much longer she'll stay in the Court.

RBG begins brilliantly with an intro that knows its audience well; while we cut from low angle shots of angrily pointing statues, we hear the voices of political commentators espousing the evils of a woman that sits on the Supreme Court. From there the film shows Ginsburg as the icon she has become, working out to stay fit while hip hop music plays under the credits. 

The film smartly uses Ginsburg's 1993 senate confirmation hearing testimony as the backbone of the narrative as she tells the story of her life. This is a clever narrative device, as it sets up the story to lead up to this turning point when she would become a Supreme Court Justice. It also shows us some familiar faces at the hearing, including Joe Biden who was chairing the committee. We get a little background on her childhood, where we hear for the first of many times that she's "not much for small talk" before diving headlong into her journey towards the Supreme Court.

Where RBG succeeds best is in its blend of the personal and political story of the woman, and the touching and long-lasting romance between herself and her husband Marty. His support of his trailblazing wife is admirable, but the documentary never strays too far from showing how hard Ginsburg worked on her own to achieve all she has. From raising a child while attending law school (as one of something like 9 females in a class of 500 at Harvard) and taking care of a very ill husband, the film makes it clear that she was something of a real life superhero.

The story of her rise to the Supreme Court is a fascinating and inspiring one. RBG shows how she followed in the footsteps of Thurgood Marshall, taking on cases that could go to the Supreme Court and affect progressive change, one step at a time. Ginsburg argued in favor of equal benefits for women and men and equal pay for starters, winning the grand majority of the cases. President Carter appointed her to the U.S. Court of Appeals in D.C. in 1980 and, thanks in part to the campaigning of her husband and friends, was appointed to the Supreme Court in 1993 by President Clinton. RBG also tracks how in recent years she has become something of a progressive icon, and the film has some fun showing some of the "Notorious RBG" memes and SNL sketches that have come out of this support.

Regardless of the historically important information presented, sometimes documentaries like these can play out like an hour and a half of CSPAN, but RBG uses a number of techniques to keep it consistently interesting and entertaining. The film creates compelling scenes of some of her cases by overlaying text dramatically within the setting of the courtroom while recordings play in the background. It is also edited and structured in such a way that it never gets boring, as there's always another case, relationship, or idea to explore, and the interviews with family, friends, and even adversaries fill in these bits quite nicely.

While the film is largely a cheerleading piece for the 84-year old Justice, it doesn't shy away from the bits that might make liberal viewers cringe a bit. This includes her surprising friendship with the late Justice Antonin Scalia, who could apparently always make her laugh despite their polar opposite interpretations of the constitution. It also touches on her controversial words on Trump during his campaign, of which even some of her supporters said were grossly inappropriate coming form a Justice of the Supreme Court.

All in all, RBG is a great documentary about an important figure in the women's rights movement and modern lawmaking. It is crafted with a clear respect for her many achievements while always aiming to uncover the true woman underneath the legend. I'm not sure that we'll see another documentary this entertaining and exciting this year, and given that it comes out in early May, might just be the perfect Mother's Day movie!

RBG is directed by Julie Cohen and Betsy West and was produced by CNN Films and Storyville Films. It releases to theaters on May 4th. Learn more on the film's official site.
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