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The Notorious RBG: A Documentary of Her Greatest Hits

At the dais, Ruth Bader Ginsburg wears a royal blue pantsuit. As she is questioned by the younger, tanner, fuller-haired versions of today’s old guard, she is neither verbose nor overconfident. Joe Biden is there, as is Orrin Hatch, leading a throng of white men only slightly past their prime.

This moment comes to encapsulate Betsy West and Julie Cohen’s new documentary, RBG. They strategically chose to follow Justice Ginsburg’s story as she herself presented it in her confirmation hearings in July, 1993.

As such, the film’s is largely chronological. It begins by showing the “Notorious” woman telling senators about her life growing up in Brooklyn, and being the first in her family to attend college (here, she comments “It is altogether natural” that she is compared to the Notorious B.I.G., “We have one very important thing in common: we were both born and bred in Brooklyn, New York.”)

Already, the film portrays  Justice Ginsburg as a larger-than-life feminist, moreso than as a young Jewish girl. West and Cohen highlight that Ruth never followed the trodden path–Ruth shared in an interview that “I loved to do the things that boys did growing up.” And follow that path she did: after graduating from Cornell, Ginsburg became one of only a few women in a class of several hundred at Harvard Law and qualified to join the then-all male Harvard Law Review.

Like Justice Ginsburg’s testimony, the documentary serves more as an anthology of Ginsburg’s career than the story of her life. It discusses equally her time in the ideological majority (United States v Virginia) and dissents that have become Political Science class lore (Shelby County v Holder). Before and on the court, Justice Ginsburg fights for the downtrodden, especially women.

The film did an excellent job providing viewers with a survey of Ginsburg’s contributions to case law. For each case, West and Cohen found the petitioner or defendant whose arguments Ginsburg voted for, and invited contemporary legal scholars to share their insight on the continued significance of the case. If more installments were made, these segments could easily pass for well-edited educational YouTube videos a la John Green’s Crash Course.

The film, like the woman whose story it tells, sometimes stretches itself thin due to laudable ambition (her husband Marty lovingly explains that “she’s a zombie” from evenings spent working into the early morning). It clumsily juxtaposes “Ruth the Cultural Icon”with “Ruth the Sober Intellectual,” splicing an opening credit sequence that belongs in a 1990s chick flick (names in block text that looks like it is physically standing on the White House lawn, personification of famous DC statues, bad rap music) with slow-paced, quiet interviews with the justice.

Eighty-four years are a lot to cover in any life, but in Ginsburg’s, it is nothing but a messy miracle that they are squeezed into an hour and a half. The directors take a no-holds-barred approach to the life they study, and do their best to present a holistic understanding of childhood, loving marriage, gilded career, and so-far-enduring legacy.

Even the film’s format itself–introducing each segment with a description from Ginsburg herself in her confirmation hearing–is loose. Sometimes it is followed, sometimes not, leaving the viewer without a clear sense of what they just witnessed.

Each segment on its own, however, leaves behind chills. It is hard to be immune to Ginsburg’s cool and composed accounts of her own life, or to suppress joy at the thought of the strides she has made for women and people of color in the United States. The directors make the love she has for her doting and hilarious husband palpable in the theater; and includes scenes with her granddaughter, to whom she is just a normal Bubby.

The film ends how viewers knew from the start it would: Ruth earns the nomination, and is congratulated by her husband, Marty, and her two grown children.  

Viewers, at the film’s conclusion, can’t help but wonder: “What choice did the Senate have, really, at the end of such a stirring testimony, other than to approve her nomination?” It was clear that the senators didn’t have a choice: the vote was ninety-six to three.

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