Ruth Bader Ginsberg documentary 'RBG' earns favorable verdict

Stirring in all the right ways, "RBG" is much more than just a profile of Ruth Bader Ginsburg, the unexpectedly iconi...

Posted: May 2, 2018 3:55 PM
Updated: May 2, 2018 3:55 PM

Stirring in all the right ways, "RBG" is much more than just a profile of Ruth Bader Ginsburg, the unexpectedly iconic Supreme Court Justice. The documentary, rather, turns out to be a wonderful love story, with a buddy comedy -- built around Ginsburg's unlikely friendship with her ideological opposite, the late Antonin Scalia -- thrown in for good measure.

Receiving a theatrical release, this CNN Films project dutifully recounts Ginsburg's professional history, including her multiple arguments before the Supreme Court -- championing women's rights and equality -- before her nomination to the high court by Bill Clinton quarter-century ago. The filmmakers also have some fun with the octogenarian's sudden hipness quotient, thanks in part to Kate McKinnon's amusing take on "Saturday Night Live."

These sequences are augmented by audio of Ginsburg's court appearances, as well as an interview conducted by NPR's Nina Totenberg. But the real heart of "RBG" -- and that term isn't used lightly -- involves Ginsburg and her husband, Marty, the gregarious counterweight to his more serious wife, who happily made his professional life subservient to recognizing his spouse's talent, at a time when dealing with such two-career families was more of an issue.

There's also an uplifting spirit of bipartisanship in the fact that Ginsburg was nearly unanimously confirmed by the Senate (Republican Orrin Hatch is among the interviewees praising her), and her playful give and take with Scalia, underscoring that it's possible -- or ought to be -- to respectively disagree when it comes to matters like interpreting the Constitution.

It helps that directors Betsy West and Julie Cohen talk to all the right people, from Ginsburg and Scalia's children to former Harvard classmates to Clinton, who concedes that she wasn't originally his first choice for the bench. "Within 15 minutes, I decided I was going to name her," he recalls of their interview.

Those with a wonky appreciation of constitutional law will also enjoy how Ginsburg reluctantly became the great dissenter, speaking forcefully against the majority as appointments by President George W. Bush shifted the court's makeup to the right.

One of her classmates, professor Arthur R. Miller, notes that Ginsburg won five out of six cases she argued before the Supreme Court as an attorney, choosing them in a manner that deftly established anti-discrimination law "like knitting a sweater."

In similar fashion, "RBG" takes various facets of a fascinating life and stitches them together, as documentaries go, into a genuine beauty.

"RBG" premieres in select theaters on May 4 and on CNN later this year.

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