Late in the documentary RBG, Ruth Bader Ginsburg watches herself being impersonated on Saturday Night Live by Kate McKinnon. Directors Julie Cohen and Betsy West hold the camera on the otherwise taciturn Supreme Court Justice while she giggles at McKinnon’s outside performance, before one of them asks, “Does that remind you of yourself?” Ginsburg answers with a kind smile: “Not at all.”
RGB is at its best when highlighting these incongruities. A woman slight of stature and enormous in intellect, Ginsburg’s the type of person who maintains friendships with political adversaries like Senator Orrin Hatch and conservative Justice Antonin Scalia while also writing eloquent defenses of liberal positions. We see her not only as the cultural icon she became during the Obama and Trump administrations, but also as a student, a wife and mother, and an erudite legal scholar.
Cohen and West find an impressive range of talking heads to contextualize these aspects of Ginsburg, from her biographers to a delightful pair of her lifelong friends to young women inspired by her example. And it’s a good thing that so many people show up about Ginsburg, because she’s not terribly interested in talking about herself.
Nowhere is this more clear than in Ginsburg’s marriage to her gregarious husband Marty, who acted as both the homemaker, who dragged his wife from the office so she could eat or sleep, and her biggest cheerleader, quick to proclaim Ruth’s genius. The film never lets Marty or any of the other endorsers overshadow Ginsburg herself – “It was her interview that sealed it” Bill Clinton unequivocally declares, after talking about Marty’s campaign to get Ruth nominated to the Supreme Court – but they do help us see different aspects of the secretive judge.
While these outside perspectives never diminish Ginsburg, they do sometimes overwhelm the movie’s narrative. The film lacks a clear organizing structure, often veering instead into one of three angles: Ginsburg’s family life, her emergence as a pop culture figure, and her career of legal advocacy. Each one of these threads deserve attention, and Cohen and West find fantastic little moments in them all, but the shifting between them weakens the story. Just as the audience fully understands the significance of Ginsburg’s work in ensuring equal pay for women, the film decides to spend time with Ginsburg and her granddaughter. As we’re still mourning Marty’s death, the movie talks about Ginsburg’s critique of Trump. Instead of a complex portrait, we end up with a sampler of Ginsburg moments.
Which isn’t to say that the film itself isn’t otherwise well-constructed. Cohen and West regularly catch one of the talking heads chuckling about something Ginsberg did or said, bringing a warmth and humanity to a person not given to sentiment. Even more impressive is the way that the directors lay out Ginsburg’s legal career, visually highlighting both the power and beauty of her words while providing sufficient context to understand her achievements.
The subject remains so fascinating and her important work so clearly presented that RBG is an educational and enjoyable film, even if it sometimes leaves us wanting more focus.