“RBG” paints a portrait of a thoroughly admirable person. That would be U.S. Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg.
Quiet spoken yet eloquent. Shy in nature, but with a will of iron.
This is a woman who, while enrolled in Harvard Law School, nursed her husband through a bout of cancer while helping him keep up with his own course work, at the same time raising a 14-month-old daughter. This, while carrying a full course load herself and averaging two hours of sleep a night while doing so.
Oh, and she distinguished herself in her studies so much that she was named to the prestigious Harvard Law Review.
And this at a time when the dean of that law school chastised her and the other eight women enrolled at the school then for taking spots that should have gone to men.
There were more than 500 men in the school when he said that.
This was in the late 1950s. This was the start of her dedication to the cause of working for women’s rights, abortion rights and gender equality under the law. That dedication has been a constant in her career. Being a path-breaker herself (a woman on the Law Review was practically unheard of at the time), her success in advocating for those causes won her national recognition and helped propel her onto the nation’s highest court.
“RBG,” from directors Julie Cohen and Betsy West (virtually all the behind-the-camera crew members are women), is an unabashedly admiring portrait that borders on hagiography. Few critical voices are heard and most of those come at the opening in off-camera soundbites from talk-radio and other right-wing personalities.
And yes, one of those voices belongs to Donald Trump.
Mostly “RBG” offers a focused overview of Ginsburg’s long and distinguished legal career. At the same time, through talking-head interview segments with the likes of NPR court correspondent Nina Totenberg, Gloria Steinem, legal colleagues and members of her family, Ginsburg’s personality shines through.
Her close friendship with the late conservative Justice Antonin Scalia, her ideological opposite on the court, is touched on. Her rigorous regular workouts with a personal trainer, including push-ups and the lifting of weights, are shown. Those workouts began as she was recovering from colon cancer in 1999. Ten years later she survived a bout with pancreatic cancer.
A big part of her personal story centers on her 56-year marriage to Martin Ginsburg. A renowned tax attorney, outgoing and with a genial sense of humor, he was her biggest fan. In the early days of their courtship, he said he thought, “She’s really cute,” and late in his life he told her, “I have loved and admired you since Cornell” (where they first met as students.)
Thanks to his prodding of influential friends, he helped raise her profile while President Bill Clinton was considering who to elevate to the Supreme Court to replace retiring Justice Byron White in 1993. “It was her interview that did it,” Totenberg said. “He fell for her within 15 minutes.”
Late in life, she has become a pop-culture icon, dubbed “the Notorious R.B.G.,” (a takeoff on “the Notorious B.I.G.” nickname given to the rapper), gushed over by millennial women, spoofed by Kate McKinnon on “Saturday Night Live” (Ginsburg is shown laughing at the portrayal), with her image appearing on T-shirts and elsewhere in the media as memes.
At 85, having survived two bouts with cancer, the question these days is how much longer can she continue to serve on the court. Ginsburg’s answer: “I will do this job as long as I can do it full steam.”
So far, that steam still seems strong.
☆☆☆ out of four
Cast: Ruth Bader Glinsburg, Gloria Steinem, Nina Totenberg
Directors: Betsy West and Julie Cohen
Running time: 1:38
Rated: PG for some thematic elements and language