Monday, June 18, 2018

RBG: Legal Jedi knight

RBG (2018) • View trailer 
Four stars. Rated PG, for no particular reason

By Derrick Bang

I know what you’re thinking.

A documentary about an 85-year-old U.S. Supreme Court Justice? How interesting could that be?

Boy, are you in for a surprise.

During her twin careers as Columbia Law School professor and American Civil Liberties
Union general counsel, Ruth Bader Ginsburg was welcomed at the White House by
President Jimmy Carter.
Documentarians Betsy West and Julie Cohen have crafted a film that’s every bit as compelling as a political thriller, and fueled by a subject every bit as captivating as a seasoned Hollywood star. RBG is shrewdly assembled: not merely a biographical study of Ruth Bader Ginsburg, but also an absorbing analysis of the degree to which her work has changed the nation in which we live.

The contrast is both droll and fascinating. In person — via clips extracted from various interviews and lectures — the diminutive Ginsburg is quiet and seemingly shy, to the point of near invisibility. You’d expect her to be the timid individual seated by herself in a distant corner, during a noisy party: the person everybody would overlook.

And yet she blossoms into a true Jedi warrior when discussing law and — perhaps more important — justice.

Her age notwithstanding, Ginsburg is indefatigable; she must be one of the lucky souls able to survive on just a few hours of sleep each night. She’s also a quiet hoot, despite the repeated insistence — from many of the individuals interviewed during the course of the film — that her husband Martin is “the funny one” (which is quite true, but still...).

West and Cohen open their film with a hilarious series of voiceover rants about Ginsburg, likely from right-wing radio commentators, who make her sound like the spawn of Satan.

We’re then eased gently into aspects of her daily routine, which include personal appearances, case prep and research, and workout sessions with trainer Bryant Johnson. (Eighty-five and lifting weights! Talk about empowerment!) Her children, Jane and James, supply tantalizing details; a session with granddaughter Clara Spera — as they page through scrapbooks — is quite endearing.

As the film progresses, West and Cohen periodically cut back to the brilliant speech Ginsburg prepared and read, during her confirmation hearings. She was nominated by President Clinton and took her seat as an Associated Justice of the U.S. Supreme Court on Aug. 10, 1993; all these years later, as Clinton looks back, he’s clearly still in awe of her. (Although not his first choice, he confesses that he decided to put her forward a mere 15 minutes after meeting her.)

Equally intriguing is the respect paid by political adversaries such as Orrin Hatch, who was the Republican ranking member of the Senate Judiciary Committee during the aforementioned confirmation hearings.

Even more captivating is our glimpse of the staunch friendship Ginsburg maintained with the late Associate Justice Antonin Scalia. Despite being polar opposites in terms of political ideology and constitutional interpretation, they liked each other: as fellow New Yorkers, lovers of opera, and frequent shopping companions while traveling. Their families spent New Year’s Eve together, and Ginsburg and Scalia were famously photographed riding an elephant, during one of their vacation excursions ... with him sitting in front.

Challenged to defend that at the time, given her steadfast advocacy for gender equality, we see Ginsburg’s wonderfully cheeky response: “It had to do with the distribution of weight.”

That relationship was more than just friendship; it was important. As Ginsburg repeatedly makes clear, during the course of this film, it’s necessary to forge and maintain bonds in order to make the institution — the Supreme Court — work.

A lesson, it must be noted, clearly being ignored in D.C. these days.

The film’s most fascinating element, however, is its depiction of the influential gender-equality cases that Ginsburg astutely embraced early in her career, as General Counsel for the American Civil Liberties Union. Her first oral argument before the Supreme Court was 1973’s Frontiero v Richardson, when she successfully persuaded the justices to overturn a discriminatory federal law, which prevented a married woman in the U.S. Air Force from obtaining the housing benefits that married male airmen received.

Taking care to lay equal-opportunity groundwork, two years later Ginsburg successfully argued that a widowed father should have access to the same child care benefits available to widows.

Once appointed to the Supreme Court, her first women’s rights case was 1996’s United States v Virginia; she wrote the majority opinion striking down the male-only admissions policy of the Virginia Military Institute.

West and Cohen cite quite a few other cases, but I don’t wish to spoil all the fun.

Ginsburg’s dissents are equally significant, starting with the court’s notorious majority decision in 2000’s Bush v Gore. More recently, as the court has tilted ever more rightward, Ginsburg’s dissents have turned her into a feisty champion and defender of the 98 percent. One senses a deeply disappointed and disapproving equal rights warrior carefully choosing her words while politely excoriating those who should know better, in the wake of (for example) majority verdicts favoring Hobby Lobby’s discriminatory approach to employee insurance coverage, and striking down the 1965 Voting Rights Act.

The latter earned her righteous wrath, when she wrote that the Court’s decision was “like throwing away your umbrella in a rainstorm, because you are not getting wet.”

Ginsburg’s rising notoriety, in the wake of such dissents, further encouraged young authors Irin Carmon and Shana Knizhnik to write their 2015 biography, Notorious RBG: The Life and Times of Ruth Bader Ginsburg. They also get a fair amount of screen time here, and their admiration of Ginsburg is palpable.

It becomes clear, as this film approaches its conclusion, that “the cult of Ginsburg” is both real and an imperative. We need heroes of substance, above and beyond film and sports stars; watching the attentive gazes of young students hanging on every word, as Ginsburg is interviewed, is transformational. 

There, we can hope, are tomorrow’s lawyers and politicians: inspired to do right by their fellow citizens.

It’ll be tough to top this one, when the year’s best documentaries face off during the next round of Academy Awards.

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