Ruth Bader Ginsburg is laughing. The Supreme Court Justice is watching a recent “Saturday Night Live” sketch where actress Kate McKinnon is impersonating her in a gregarious and overzealous nature. The real Ginsburg is speaking at a slow, concise pace, but there’s still imminent laughs bubbling up from her mid-eighties body below. Much of what we’ve learned in “RBG” to this point about the crusading equal rights lawyer proves this comedic depiction of her is far from accurate. But the exaggerated sketch still echoes the unshakable truth of Ginsburg’s bizarre but inevitable as a cultural icon.
Directed by Betsy West and Julie Cohen, “RBG” documents Ginsburg’s evolution from discriminated law student, to champion of gender rights, to unlikely Tumblr and meme maven in the 2010s. We follow the course of her significant accomplishments in law, how her husband Marty won her heart by appreciating her head, and the various foes turned friends who tried to block her path along the legal trail. Colorful testimonies from loved ones plus black and white archival footage and photos help paint a clear portrait of this woman and her accomplishments in the face of adversity.
The doc succeeds on an emotional level because its subject clearly exhibits the opinions portrayed about her in real-time. We watch the smiling Ginsburg attend multiple public speaking events, interact with her law-bound grandchildren, and do an impressive 25 seconds of plank exercises with her long-time trainer. And when the justice reads old notes or love letters she wrote decades ago, our emotions swell as Ruth struggles to maintain composure.
Even with this intimacy, the documentary is operating at a distance. We never feel as if we are next to Ruth at one of her congressional testimonies or university lectures in “RBG,” but instead are watching them at home on C-SPAN. Ginsburg isn’t portrayed as dedicated public servant but an unelected mass savior, someone who can’t perform her role as true, unbiased moderator if everyone loves her so much. Each of the talking heads offers something insightful but their faces immediately retreat from our memory once they leave the screen.
The documentary does make note of the criticism Ginsburg received when expressing her views on then candidate Donald Trump in the 2016 election. But at this point in the “RBG” the Trump mention feels like a lazy, last-ditch effort to cloak the pedestal it had been building for Ginsburg through the previous 80 minutes.
But Ginsburg’s popularity is ultimately a good thing in an era where most citizens can’t name their state’s two senators. And “RBG” still succeeds as a taut examination of Ginsburg’s life, struggles and accomplishments. Perhaps the lack of intimacy between the audience and “RBG” is owed to Ginsburg’s own nature as a fairly introverted, reserved person, not so much life of the party as law of the party. But we’re left with the confidence that if there were any untruth in this picture, Ginsburg would not abide by it.