Michael Potts | 24/07/2018
The law is typically something considered to be prohibitively dull. Even so, it has a profound and all-encompassing effect on all of us, and is often shaped by a relatively small number of legislators, advisors and assorted others. Perhaps the most important of those assorted others are the judges who interpret and develop the law, and the highest court in any country is the final arbiter of what a law means. Enter Ruth Bader Ginsberg, Associate Justice of the United States Supreme Court and the subject of the biographical documentary, RBG.
The film charts the life of Justice Ginsberg, from her upbringing in New York, through her college days and into her career as a lawyer and later a judge. Not simply a recount of her professional life, however, the documentary also gives time to her personal life, notably to her marriage and her love for the arts.
RBG, as well as being a human story, is also a political piece, tying everything back to the central theme of equal rights, most particularly equal rights for women. This cause was a central focus of Ginsberg’s pre-judicial career, and as a Supreme Court Justice she has been seen as one of the more liberal on the bench throughout her tenure. Many of her opinions, whether in the majority or the minority, have been robustly supportive of equal rights. The most significant Supreme Court cases on which Ginsberg has worked, on both sides of the bench, are used to structure the film once it reaches her professional life, with insights into the background of each case, as well as the arguments and tactics employed by Ginsberg. These are often provided by colleagues, friends and family, as well as the woman herself. There are interviewees from across the political spectrum, but friends and ideological allies are undoubtedly in the majority. It is an overwhelmingly positive look at the judge, with only some small attention paid to flaws and missteps. Even so, the commentary is fair and never really comes across as sycophantic.
What is perhaps most striking, and arguably most valuable about RBG, is the humanising profile of the woman and the people around her. Ginsberg’s stern seriousness and titanic work ethic is contrasted with the warm friendships she has cultivated, including, intriguingly, the late Justice Antonin Scalia, who was her ideological opposite. Most touching, though, is her 56 year marriage to Martin “Marty” Ginsberg, who passed away in 2010. RBG intelligently gives a generous amount of time to this aspect of Justice Ginsberg’s life, turning a far off public icon into a relatable figure, consequently making the depiction of her career-long fight for equal rights for woman all the more powerful. But not only that, the portrayed attitude of Marty Ginsberg, willingly making career sacrifices for his wife against the norm for the vast majority of marriages, further reinforces the central theme.
For the legally initiated or those otherwise interested, there is perhaps something of a lack of actual legal content. The examination of laws, cases and legal institutions is brief at best in most cases, though much more than that could hardly be seriously expected (the judicial appointments process is given some time, however). This is a documentary for the lay person, and rightly so given the socio-political message, not to mention the timing of its production.
Judges are too often shrouded in a certain level of mystery, despite the significant power they hold in our societies. RBG gives a rare insight into one of these figures and at the same time promotes a fairer, more humane vision of society. Even for its shortcomings it is well worth the watch.