Film

Legal Eagle

RBG at the movies

Wednesday, September 23, 2020

“I would like to be remembered as someone who used whatever talent she had to do her work to the very best of her ability.”—Ruth Bader Ginsburg

She was a tiny lady in a lace collar, and yet she was a giant. Tough as nails, brilliant jurist, the unlikeliest pop culture phenomenon, hero to so many.

I’m talking, of course, about Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg.

We all knew she was in frail health—as if the word “frail” could ever be used in conjunction with her name—but when she passed away Sept. 18 after a prolonged battle with metastatic pancreatic cancer, it was the shock heard round the nation.

Although Ginsburg was cagey about it, it was a widely accepted political truth that she was delaying retirement from her lifetime appointment to the Supreme Court bench until after the Nov. 3 presidential election. She almost made it. She came so close. She had the will, but her body lacked the strength.

Her death plunged the country into even greater political chaos (didn’t think such a thing was possible? Welcome to 2020). Roughly eight or nine seconds after the Ginsburg family announced her passing—along with her dying wish that she not be replaced until after the election—President Trump said he’d move to nominate someone “without delay.” Predictably, this set off a firestorm of anger and dismay among Democrats, who saw President Obama’s confirmation of Merrick Garland stymied by a right-wing excuse now known as the “McConnell Rule,” that says a Supreme Court Justice should not be nominated and confirmed during a president’s lame duck period. For their part, Republicans descended into gleeful clapping and rank hypocrisy as they promised to bring a confirmation vote to the Senate floor and McConnell said (I’m paraphrasing here), “McConnell Rule? Never heard of it.”

All of the sturn und drang has further worn out and panicked an already exhausted and shell-shocked American electorate, but mostly it has sucked the oxygen out of efforts to remember and honor Justice Ginsburg herself. Which is a shame because she was a truly remarkable woman.

It is entirely possible you need a break from screaming headlines and screeching Twitter feeds and the rage-filled memes that are what the internet seems to be made of right now. It is quite probable you need a break from the internet itself. What better way to do it than by watching one or both of the films with Ginsburg as their subject?

Even though it happened right before my very eyes, I’m not entirely certain how Ginsburg became a cultural phenomenon. Lord knows being a Supreme Court Justice does not typically lend itself to such things. But somewhere along the way, Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg became the Notorious RBG, perhaps a ridiculous nickname, but an identity she wore easily and embodied effortlessly.

Her life and her ascension to judicial rock-stardom are chronicled in the 2018 documentary RBG. Yes, it details her famously difficult workout routine (my respect for Ginsburg was never greater than when I tried to do it myself); the cottage industry of T-shirts, posters, coffee mugs and other assorted ephemera that come with being a cultural icon; the hilarious homage paid to her by Kate McKinnon on Saturday Night Live, and the unlikely fandom that she, by all accounts, seemed to take in stride.

But RBG also details her unlikely path to the nation’s top court, to being the first female member of the prestigious Harvard Law Review to becoming just the second woman to serve on the Supreme Court. In the middle she had an impressively successful legal career advocating on behalf of and arguing for gender equality—including several cases that saw her arguing before the Supreme Court in a harbinger of her future on that very bench.

However, the best—and most illuminating—part of the affectionate portrait presented by RBG deals with her marriage to Marty Ginsburg, a man also ahead of his time in that he wholeheartedly supported his wife’s ambition and career during a time when most women were expected to stay home and raise children. Speaking of children, her kids make an appearance in the documentary as well, and from them—even more than from the ticker tape of her many accomplishments—you get a sense of Ginsburg’s toughness and work ethic, which went hand in hand with her obvious love for her family.

Keep in mind that RBG does not exactly paint an objective picture of Ginsburg and her career, steering well clear of the controversies that have sometimes come with her legal positions. But as an affectionate glimpse of a beloved icon, it’s well worth a watch.

For a fictionalized account of the events of her early years that help transform her into a feminist titan, turn to the biopic On the Basis of Sex. The film itself is entertaining if oversimplified (as with most biopics), but Felicity Jones shines as the not-yet-notorious RBG, while Armie Hammer does duty as her dutiful husband. We see the often-brutal discrimination she endured during her Harvard years, her retreat to academia when no New York law firm would hire a woman, and finally watch her try the case that launched a dazzling career that took her to the nation’s highest hall of justice. It’s affecting filmmaking, and when Ginsburg herself shows up at the end, you may just find yourself with something in your eye, if you know what I’m saying.

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