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Tuesday, February 19, 2019

OSCARS 2019: RBG (2018)

The documentary continues to make in-roads into the mainstream in 2018. If one documentary can be said to truly connect with a broader audience last year, it was “Won't You Be My Neighbor?” Millennial audiences desperate for earnestness in the blazing hellscape that is our modern world flocked to the Mister Rogers doc. This turned it into the highest grossing biographical documentary of all time. But, for whatever reason, the Academy wasn't impressed enough with that film to actually nominate it for Best Documentary Feature. Instead, they sought out the other biographic documentary that made some box office waves last year. “RBG,” following the career of Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg.

As you'd expect, “RBG: The Film” gives us a look at the life of RBG: The Woman. As with most biographical documentaries, the film begins in the modern day before tracing back to Ginsberg's roots. We see how she was raised by a tough but principled woman, a mother that passed away when Ruth was only 17. This principal, to never show anger, to always speak truth to power, has carried Ginsberg through her career. We see how she journeyed through law school, despite facing discrimination based on her gender. Her role as a women's right activist, speaking before the Supreme Court on several groundbreaking cases, is detailed. As is her eventual appointment to the Supreme Court and the challenges she has faced in the two decades since.

The facts of Ruth Bader Ginsberg's career can be easily uncovered. That's the kind of thing we have Wikipedia for. While “RBG” is zippy, the sequences focused on this information are only compelling in a baseline sort of way. More interesting is the peaks we get into Ginsberg's personal life. We see her interacting with her granddaughter, a recent graduate of law school herself, the esteemed woman acting like a traditional Jewish bubbe. She shows her closest full of special collars to the camera, detailing their meaning. We meet her children, childhood best friends, personal trainer, and co-workers. (Including an unlikely friendship with Antonin Scalia, her philosophical opposite on the court.) Especially touching are the portions devoted to her late husband, Martin. It's obvious he complimented her, with his soft-spoken humor. Without hammering it home, it's apparent how much she misses him now.

Especially entertaining, and likely the reason why “RBG” got made at this time, is how the film tracks Ginsberg's resurgence into pop culture. Her status as a light of sanity in an increasingly insane modern climate, resisting the rise of crypto-fascist “conservative” politics, is shown as the cause for her popularity. Though the film doesn't deny the humor in making an 87 year old woman into an exaggerated bad-ass. The film shows various internet memes comparing her to Wonder Woman, Black Widow, and the Notorious B.I.G. While the interviews with the creators of this memes are mildly interesting, Ginsberg's reaction to her newfound status as an internet star is more amusing. She nonchalantly accepts the “Notorious R.B.G.” nickname, pointing the similarities she had with Biggie Smalls. We see her watching a rowdy Saturday Night Live sketch about her, giggling enthusiastically. Ginsberg seems delighted by her role in pop culture but clearly never lets it distract from the seriousness of her work.

Just taken as a straight-ahead documentary, “RBG” sets off with few bells and whistles. Directors Julie Cohen and Betsy West deploy the occasional visual gimmick. The landmark cases of Ginsberg's career are presented on-screen as titles on very official looking papers. The recordings of Supreme Court cases play as voice-overs over footage of the empty court room, the words appearing as text above the seats. Ginsberg is frequently called upon to recite some of her more famous words directly to the camera, often emphasizing her incredible abilities as an orator. Otherwise, “RBG” is a pretty standard talking heads documentary. 

Not that there's anything wrong with that. You don't need flashy visuals or fancy cinematic techniques to get your point across. Just as a portrayal of an extraordinary woman, “RBG” is more than valid. It's a pretty fluffy doc, basically feel-good comfort food for people who lean left on the political spectrum. Will it win the Oscar? If the Academy feels the need to reward a box office success, it might. It would certainly be among the more socially conscious choices the voters could make as well. I guess we'll just see. Until then, this film might preach to the choir but it still succeeds at what it set out to do. [7/10]

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