Move Review: ‘RBG’ tells the life story of Supreme Court justice


Preston Barta // Features Editor


Rated PG, 97 minutes.
Director: Julie Cohen and Betsy West
Cast: Ruth Bader GinsburgGloria Steinem and Nina Totenberg

In a political climate filled with cynicism and a sense of civic decay, Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg often helps to keep our eyes fixed on a more hopeful future. Given her large and enthusiastic following, it’s no surprise a documentary about her life and career is making its way to the big screen. Her achievements and ongoing battle for equality are inspiring and perfect material with which to capture a viewer’s interest at large. Even though RBG fails to offer a warts-and-all approach to its subject, it’s a film that may persuade you to sport a trendy “Notorious RBG” T-shirt and follow her lead.

Filmmakers Julie Cohen and Betsy West open their film with Ginsburg doing push-ups and lifting some light weights. It’s about as lovely and humorous an image as watching your grandmother step into a boxing ring, especially when you see Ginsburg wearing a purple sweatshirt that reads “Super Diva.” This opening captures Ginsburg’s tireless work ethic and sharp wit.

RBG has a fascinating structure that sees Cohen and West weaving together three different storylines around Ginsburg’s 1993 confirmation-hearing testimony. (Look out for a younger Joe Biden during that testimony.) The first of these stories is the pivotal role Ginsburg played in the legal battle for women to gain equal rights. This begins before she even dons a black gown and her signature decorated collars.

Her early life may intrigue viewers the most, because, like history does, it causes you to become more aware of how far we’ve come and how much further we need to go. For younger viewer, the most shocking discovery comes early in the movie: Not so long ago, employers could fire a woman for simply becoming pregnant (even if she was married). Interviews with Ginsburg and her colleagues on this matter will fill you with rage, but will also give you an appreciation for Ginsburg’s undying devotion to dispose of this logic. But that example is just one of many that Ginsburg tries to correct. Later cases such as 1973’s Frontiero vs. Richardson (a female lieutenant in the United States Air Force sought dependents allowance for her husband) and 1975’s Weinberger vs. Wiesenfeld (a father’s plight to receive benefits for his deceased wife) will send your fists balling up as well.

Justice Ginsburg, right, and former President Jimmy Carter shaking hands, c. 1980 in ‘RBG.’ Courtesy photo.

The second storyline delves into Ginsburg’s legacy and how she became a pop culture icon. She has inspired SATURDAY NIGHT LIVE skits (which Ginsburg watches in the documentary and laughs at Kate McKinnon’s exaggerated portrayal), merchandise and tattoos. This segment is undoubtedly funny, but also feels like a glorified DVD extra. It rarely presents audiences with any opposing views — except for her tender friendship she had with former Associate Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia, a man who couldn’t be further from Ginsburg in terms of legal interpretation, but found a common ground in their appreciation for the opera. (Personally, I would love a documentary strictly focused on their compelling dynamic.)

Lastly, and most endearingly, we explore Ginsburg’s love story. Set up on a blind date with Martin Ginsburg (and he comically explains how he said it wasn’t so blind on his end) while they were both undergrads at Cornell University, Ruth Bader fell for the man who came to be her husband. The documentary chronicles their marriage through Martin’s cancer treatment. Their love is as true as it gets.

In one sequence, Martin explains that he had to tell his wife to come to bed every night, otherwise she would stay up working until 4 a.m., sometimes 6 a.m. To see her husband support her and never feel any sort of jealousy in her successes gives the film some serious emotional heft.

A shot-through-the-heart moment comes when Ginsburg reads a note from her husband that was left on his bedside shortly after he passed away in 2010. RBG couldn’t have released at a better time. Ginsburg is one of the best lawyers, judges and feminist icons working today. She may share the same frustrations as many with Donald Trump’s presidency, but she speaks softly and carries a big pen.

Ginsburg uses her intelligence and well-crafted arguments to fight for truth and justice. She knows (and reminds us) that it’s not about who we’re up against, but what we are fighting for.

Grade: B

RBG opens in limited release this weekend.
Dallas: Angelika Film Center in Plano and Magnolia Theatre in Dallas

About author

Preston Barta

I have been working as a film journalist since 2010, dividing the first four years between radio broadcasting and entertainment writing in the Dallas-Fort Worth metroplex. In 2014, I entered Fresh Fiction ( as the features editor. The following year, I stepped into the film critic position at the Denton Record-Chronicle, a daily North Texas print publication. My time is dedicated to writing theatrical film reviews, at-home entertainment columns, and conducting interviews with on-screen talent and filmmakers, as well as hosting a podcast devoted to genre filmmaking (called My Bloody Podcast). I've been married for seven happy years, and I have one son who is all about dinosaurs just like his dad.