‘RBG’ is An Ambitious Biopic of Justice Ginsburg’s Life and a Must-See

RBG kicks off with a roll call of slurs against her Ruth Bader Ginsburg. Conservatives and misogynists declaring her a witch, wicked, a zombie, raised the hair on my arm and turned my stomach immediately. This intro will hit home with any woman who’s ever voiced an opinion in public, priming the emotional well for the epic life story of a crusader for ordinary justice in a century where women’s rights are considered a fringe issue.

U.S. Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg in RBG, directed by Betsy West and Julie Cohen. Courtesy of CNN Films.

Justice Ginsburg’s contribution to women’s lib is a somewhat sneaky incrementalist strategy. Not the type to take the streets, publish fiery propaganda, or DIY the women’s world order, she nevertheless has a radical vision for equality. It just involves acting within the system instead of burning it down. She argues as if the Constitution already protects us all equally. In the film, she advocates plainly for deliberate, small changes over time, arrived at through establishing airtight legal precedent and challenging unjust laws. This is perhaps best exemplified by her response to the question ‘When will there be enough women on the Supreme Court?’ “My answer is, when there are nine.”

RBG is an ambitious biopic. It covers her entire life, finding time for law school, early love, her love for opera, her commitment to twice-weekly workouts, and a survey of her pop culture fan base. All of these are important in creating a portrait of a justice who is, at at the unlikely age of 85, a living Wonder Woman and also just an ordinary person putting in the work and doing her best.

The movie is at its best when it’s a love story. Two overlapping and intertwined love stories, really. The love between RBG and her family, especially her late husband Marty. And the love between Justice Ginsburg and the Constitution. Ginsburg is a workaholic, pictured in her office til 4 in the morning most weeknights. She catches up on sleep on the weekend. While we see her devotion to her career and really to the spirit of the law itself, we also see that she couldn’t have done it without the support of her family. Her personal trainer at one point calls her a cyborg, and with the sheer depth and breadth of her work, it’s easy to see why. That work is supported by the loyalty and love of her friends and family.

The movie is at its most cringey when exploring the zeitgeist of the Notorious RBG. Snippets of late night shows, brief interviews with young women who, were they not put on the spot, might come across as the feminists they no doubt are, rather than as fangirls, several montages of memes, t-shirts and merch. All of these are, I guess, supposed to explain RBG’s popularity. But we know she’s the super star of the Supreme Court. That’s why we’re watching. To me, these parts of the movie feel a little like an elegy for a woman who’s still with us.

There’s also a sense in the movie that Justice Ginsburg is a liberal hero. Liberal heroism comes with it liberal paranoia that RBG will die or be forced to step down, and that an already conservative court welcoming an alt-right activist judge will be the final Doom Harbinger of late capitalism and America’s incontrovertible, accelerating demise.

While liberals have made her a mascot, Justice Ginsburg is essentially a political centrist and you’ll learn in the film that for the majority of her time on the court, she valued reaching understanding, if not consensus with the other justices, including textualist (and nightmare conservative ghoul) Antonin Scalia. Her place as one of the most liberal justices on the court has more to do with her position relative to reactionary, corporatist appointees of reactionary, corporatist presidents. RBG is the notorious dissenter precisely because the conservative bloc of the Supreme Court keeps handing down rulings that are stacked in favor of the industrial complex and against individual Americans. The justice I see in this movie is the champion of individual liberty and common sense legal interpretation, and hopefully, that’s not an exclusively liberal value, even in these trying times.

Which brings me to my realest beef with this movie. It’s presented that RBG’s arguments are brilliant and feminist without much explanation as to why. You can’t take it for granted that a decision or argument is a good legal interpretation, or a feminist milestone, simply because your hero arrived at it.

It would be nice to better understand the arguments on the other side. I would have watched a movie with ten more examples of cases she argued as a lawyer or decisions she authored as a judge. So often rulings challenge definitions or seek to clarify or define what has before been social policy chaos. For lay people, we mostly know only that the Notorious RBG’s is the fieriest dissenter against outrageous and heinous majority legal opinions. We don’t necessarily know how those opinions work or what it means for legal precedent, and I think, given how devoted Justice Ginsburg is to the law, that would be a better celebration of who she is and what her life has been all about.

Ultimately, while I’ve presented a fair amount of criticism above, it amounts to nitpicking. I think this movie is a must-see. It made me feel invigorated about fighting for justice. It broke through my perpetual cynicism about the System (a cynicism that I stand by: the System blows; but perpetual cynicism is truly unproductive in struggling for women’s lib). It reminded me that no one accomplishes anything without love.

RBG is out in theaters today!