Thursday, May 17, 2018

RBG (as in Ruth Bader Ginsburg)

       Agreed, You Can’t Spell “Truth” Without “Ruth,” But You Also 
       Can’t Spell “Darth Vader” Without “[B]ader” or “Gin” Without 
      “Gin[sburg],” So Don’t Get Too Excited About a Clever Meme  
       Unless It Truly Has Some Substance—Which This One Does

                                                            Review by Ken Burke

                                                RBG (Betsy West, Julie Cohen)

Here’s the trailer:  (Use the full screen button in the image’s lower right to enlarge it; activate that same button on the full screen’s lower right or your “esc” keyboard key to return to normal size.)

 Normally I begin each of my Two Guys in the Dark  reviews with a short “Executive Summary” which promises to contain no spoilers (followed by my more detailed comments in which such plot-ruinations are identified by the blatantly-colorful-means noted just below this paragraph); however, given that this film is a documentary based mostly on the public record about U.S. Supreme Court Associate Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg there’s really nothing I could say that would either truly be a spoiler or isn’t essentially referenced in the trailer right above so I’ll just skip the Summary, proceed to my-likewise-normally-overly-detailed-commentary-prattle—unless this "unbearable lengthiness of being" provides a confusion with substance.  (Although, for the record, I’ll cite my normal boilerplate spoiler statement with the understanding this entire review should then be set off with beginning and ending arrows, red words, and yellow highlights, along with the rest of my text being in light blue because I intend to hold nothing back from what’s presented on screen, just as the subject of this doc is very clear on her legal positions—especially those dealing with women’s [and men's] rights—even as she learned to keep her thoughts to herself where a certain Presidential candidate was concerned.)

If you can abide plot spoilers read on, but as this blog’s intended for those who’ve seen the film—or want to save some bucks—to help any of you who want to learn more details yet avoid important plot-reveals I’ll identify any give-away sentences/sentence-clusters like this: 
⇒The first and last words will be noted with arrows and red.⇐ OK, now continue on if you prefer.

 Just as I’m not peppering these comments with my identified-plot-spoilers, I’m also not using my usual structure of dividing these thoughts into the sections of What Happens, So What?, and Bottom Line Final Comments as that format doesn’t work so well with documentaries.  Instead, I’ll just use the intentions of those thematic segments, beginning by noting this film explores the life, legal philosophy, and social impact of Ruth Bader Ginsburg, now celebrating 25 years as a member of the U.S. Supreme Court, having been nominated by President Bill Clinton, confirmed by the Senate (96-3) in 1993.  This filmic narrative largely follows chronological order so we traipse back at the beginning through her 85 years to Brooklyn as the child of Russian Jewish immigrants, noting the tragedy of her mother dying of cancer—right before high-school graduation—when Ruth was just 17 (in a wholly different situation from The Beatles’ song with that lyric, “I Saw Her Standing There,” although that aspect also became relevant when she moved on to higher education) then it’s off to college at Cornell where she met her long-term-husband, Marty Ginsburg, marriage right after that graduation, followed by both of them at Harvard Law School (where she was only 1 of 9 women in a group of 500 students, having to justify to the top brass there why she should be taking the place of a “qualified man” who seemingly deserved such an honor more than she did back in the 1950s). In his 3rd year Marty developed cancer so Ruth was confronted with caring for him while continuing her own studies in addition to the primary responsibility for raising their 2 young children.

 After he recovered, Marty finished his degree before Ruth did, followed by him taking a tax law job (his specialty) with a NYC firm, so she transferred to Columbia, graduated in 1959 (tied for first in her class), then—after some jobless-frustration—went onto to both an academic (Rutgers School of Law 1963-1972, Columbia Law School 1972-1980; tenured at both) and a courtroom career (in a profession that had little interest in her existence) which eventually focused on sex-discrimination cases, 6 of which in the 1970s brought her before the Supreme Court (she prevailed in 5 of them).*

*If you’d like to get a summary of her life thus far (more to come, she fully intends) without investing time and money into seeking out this current documentary (assuming you can even find it, as its release is quite limited at present), you might enjoy reading all the information available at this site.

 What set Ruth Bader Ginsburg on the road to jurisprudence history was Frontiero v Richardson (1973) where she convinced the High Court a married woman serving in the U.S. Air Force was entitled to the same housing benefits available to male airmen, but she also became noted for Weinberger v Wisenfeld (1975) in which she successfully argued widowers should have access to the same child-care-benefits widows do, acknowledging early on that in her mind gender-imbalance isn’t just a situation applied to women.  Another level-playing-field-victory happened with Duren v Missouri (1979), voiding a state law allowing women, but not men, to opt out of jury service thereby denying defendants their right to be tried by a representative-cross-section of their community.  Similarly, as a Supreme Court Justice (after serving on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit since 1980, nominated by President Jimmy Carter) she wrote the majority (7-1) opinion in United States v Virginia (1996), which struck down the males-only-admission-policy of the Virginia Military Institute with the inclusion of the finding that government policies which discriminate on the basis of gender should be presumed unconstitutional.  However, she may be just as well-known (along with being well-respected, at least by those who support her) for some of her Supreme Court dissents including Bush v Gore (2000) which stopped the recount in Florida of the November 2000 election handing the Presidency to George W. Bush, Lilly Ledbetter v Goodyear (2007) where the Court ruled Ledbetter had been underpaid in comparison to male coworkers but wasn’t entitled to redress her grievances because she didn’t file her complaint within the specified time period (leading Congress to pass the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act in 2009), Shelby County v Holder (2013) which struck down a key provision of the 1965 Voting Rights Act with a claim it was no longer needed to protect African-American voters from discriminationprompting a response from Ginsburg this decision is “like throwing away your umbrella in a rainstorm because you’re not getting wet”and Burwell v Hobby Lobby (2014) allowing a family-owned-business to decline contraception insurance coverage for its employees based on the owners’ religious beliefs.

 In addition to a concise focus on each of the cases noted above (and the praise for such work by feminist-icon Gloria Steinem and others), this film also attempts to briefly explore some of the more-private-aspects of Justice Ginsburg’s life such as her strong friendship (including a mutual love of opera by 2 Brooklyn-born-adjudicators) with the late Associate Justice Antonin Scalia, despite their basic ideological differences; the deep loss—again to cancer—of her caring, gregarious husband, Marty, in 2010 (with humorous stories about him being the family cook as well as the one hounding her to finally leave the office each night in order to partake of those dinners, along with his willingness to move to D.C. when she was appointed to the Court of Appeals, balancing out her earlier relocation to NYC) countered by the ongoing love of her children and grandchildren (the former, Jane and James, discuss their mother in the film; representing the latter, Clara Spera’s shown working on her own legal pursuits with Grandma Ruth); the means by which she’s become a celebrity among a younger generation impressed with her dedication to social justice (leading to her nickname of “The Notorious RBG,” referring to rapper The Notorious B.I.G., although Ginsburg indicates no connection to such music), as well as becoming a popular personality inspiring T-shirts, tattoos, and Kate McKinnon's intentionally-exaggerated-impersonation on Saturday Night Live (in one of the film’s scenes she finally sees McKinnon’s skits, seemingly enjoying them); gaining the admiration of long-time-friends for her weekly workouts to help keep herself in shape (as a response to recovery from her own bouts of cancer in 1999, 2009), staving off retirement; admitting her own shortcomings in such incidents as dozing off during President Obama's 2015 State of the Union address after some pre-speech-wine at dinner and criticizing Presidential-candidate Donald Trump in 2016 (with responses in the doc from associates likewise criticizing her for taking a partisan approach—if you want to see considerably more testimony about or by Justice Ginsburg, just do a YouTube search with her name to find lots of it including a somewhat-overlapping CNN interview, almost as long [1:14:14, posted on February 12, 2018] as this current documentary runs).

Here she's holding the same ACLU-provided copy of the Constitution I received
 when attending the play with overtones to RBG noted much farther below.
 But, even with all of that biographical information crammed effectively into a well-timed-exploration (97 min.), the key question is whether it makes for compelling cinema or simply reinforces what her supporters want to hear during these divisive sociopolitical times.  The general critical consensus has been solidly in favor of what’s on screen with a hefty cluster of 93% positive reviews at Rotten Tomatoes, a 72% average score at Metacritic (with the latter group normally always notably lower so this still is a solid number for them, at least compared to other cinematic offerings both they and I have reviewed so far this year; more information on both of these critical-consolidation-results available in the Related Links section farther below), but there are some dissenters, such as James Berardinelli of Reel Views, a guy I respect, generally agree with (but not this time) who says: RBG isn’t worth the time and effort of seeking out in a theater unless you’re a die-hard RBG fan. Little in the film can’t be found in Justice Ginsburg’s Wikipedia entry; it functions more as a straightforward (and sanitized) biography than a probing or intriguing examination of one of the nation’s most influential judicial voices. RBG’s superficiality makes it good background material about the subject and the forces that guided her life’s crusade but the blinders it willingly wears represent its greatest flaw.”  Conversely, another critic whose opinion I respect (even if we’re not in sync) is A.O. Scott of The New York Times whose summation speaks for those of us supporting this engaging film: “But 'RBG' reasonably chooses to focus on Justice Ginsburg herself, and relishes every moment of her company. It also shows why she has become such an inspiration for younger feminists, like Irin Carmon and Shana Knizhnik, whose 2015 book 'Notorious RBG: The Life and Times of Ruth Bader Ginsburg' helped create the contemporary image of a fierce, uncompromising and gracious champion of women’s rights.  ¶ That those rights are in a new phase of embattlement goes without saying. The movie’s touch is light and its spirit buoyant, but there is no mistaking its seriousness or its passion. Those qualities resonate powerfully in the dissents that may prove to be Justice Ginsburg’s most enduring legacy, and ‘RBG’ is, above all, a tribute to her voice.”  Neither of these guys is more "right" than the other, they merely come at it from differing viewpoints, yet trying to assess which perspective seems more viable to you (especially if all you know of any given film is from these second-hand-accounts) is what makes all arts criticism so equally useful and frustrating.

Justice Ginsburg and her granddaughter, Clara Spera
 However, in addition to these respected critics, from the press materials accompanying this film comes another opinion, that of the 2 directors: We took to heart Justice Ginsburg’s approach to sexism and adversity. When, after graduating at the top of her law school class, she could not get a job, she remembered her mother’s advice: anger is a waste of time. Eventually, she was able to use her formidable legal skills to fight for justice for women—a fight she has continued through five decades.  ¶ Justice Ginsburg’s steadfast commitment remains, not only for gender equality but also for democratic institutions that protect the rights of all citizens. No wonder she is a millennial icon.” Certainly, though, she’s not an across-the-board-icon as these filmmakers make clear in their opening minutes with images of D.C. juxtaposed to soundbites from various dissenters, making it clear how awful they think Ginsburg is; they’re joined in such opinions in a later statement from Senator Orrin Hatch (R-UT), although he does admit he admires the steadfast stances she’s always taken, enough so that he voted to confirm her to the top court in 1993 despite those policy differences (in which she was unequivocal in her support of women’s abortion rights, lest females should become regarded as not fully availed of the freedoms assured to males by the Constitution).
A group portrait of the U.S. Supreme Court at the time Justice Ginsburg was confirmed.
 While RBG’s not yet very easy to find, playing in only 179 domestic (U.S.-Canada) theaters after 2 weeks in release (thereby yielding only about $2 million in ticket sales so far, although that resulted in the 10th best spot for last weekend’s grosses with Magnolia Pictures happy about the results, planning an expansion), an even-more-isolated-narrative with direct resonance to RBG is What the Constitution Means to Me (written by, starring Heidi Schreck), a unique performance structure for a play, currently at the Berkeley (CA) Repertory Theatre (with limited chance for further touring if it keeps getting hesitant reviews like this one from the San Francisco Chronicle: […] a kind of faux spontaneity that deflates your investment in what she’s created so far and makes you wary of taking the trouble to care about what she builds next.”), which I enjoyed immensely (despite its constantly questioning nature) as it presents many direct challenges to how well our nation’s founding document even intends to protect U.S. women, with only the 19th Amendment (1920) specifying no denial of voting rights based on sex, leaving other freedoms dependent upon Court interpretations of the 9th (securing other unnamed rights, whatever they may be) and 14th (“due process,” “equal protection” although in 1791, then 1868, that didn’t include voting rights so it’s still hit-or-miss for females, as the Equal Rights Amendment [passed by Congress, 1972] has not yet been ratified by the required number of states but actions continue to overcome this vile situation).  
 This presentational-pair certainly made an impression on me on succeeding days last weekend (I enjoyed the play considerably more than Ms. Janiak, as evidenced by her mildly-supportive-review), with the resounding audience vote (following a debate within the Berkeley play) for retaining the Constitution as we know it with amendments as needed—rather than attempting to rewrite the whole thing to more directly guarantee equal rights for all—giving credence to the ongoing message of RBG that sex-discrimination isn’t legal nor acceptable even under centuries-old-statutes, although Ginsburg admits it’s now easier for her colleagues to admit such inequities exist with 3 women now on the Court, whereas in her earlier cases there seemed to be no awareness among Justices then that such a fundamental problem was so inherent in our U.S. sociocultural landscape.
Nanook of the North (Robert Flaherty, 1922)
 In evaluating any documentary the emphasis should be on its use of a persuasive argument about its subject matter because, at base, while documentaries may be mistakenly understood as factual explorations of a given topic,* they’re not so much about truth as about bringing the audience around to the filmmaker’s point of view.  If you like, you can do an Internet search on “documentary films as persuasion” which will yield several useful results from sources such as ERIC, Sage Publications, Taylor-Francis Online, but to get to the documents listed you’ll have to sign up and/or pay for these services so getting more in-depth-clarification on my premise may be more trouble than it’s worth, although for free you can read a Master's Thesis (2012) on how even film scores can be used for rhetorical purposes (exploring the soundtrack of The Cove [Louis Psihoyos, 2009] an exposé about the slaughter of dolphins in Japan) or you might be interested in this audiovisual argument about the tactics used in other audiovisual arguments, The Art of Deception (28 min.), which looks as how brainwashing and fear tactics are often used in docs (although, be warned the bias is evident here as well as attacks are made on other filmmakers’ approaches, with the content subtly—at times blatantly—revealing this film’s underlying use of conservative, Christian ideology. 

*Decades of exploratory-study in communication theory have led me to believe there are 5 basic functions of human communication (representing a synthesis of various authors so there’s nothing simple I can cite for you here for support): information, instruction, persuasion, entertainment (including related but distinct aspects of social reinforcement and emotive purgation [catharsis]), enrichment (encompassing spiritual and aesthetic messages and responses).  Documentaries are often expected to fall within the informational function, but in tracing these cinematic structures back at least to Nanook of the North it's clear they’re much more grounded in well-crafted-manipulations intended to sway an audience toward their creator’s point of view.  True information examples should include operation manuals, non-biased-textbooks, and news reports, although the latter has too-frequently-devolved in recent years into its own form of propaganda in print, broadcast, cablecast, and Internet, often with a heavy—if not primary—dose of entertainment mixed in.  Even film reviews (including those from Two Guys in the Dark) amount to a form of persuasion, intended to verify the critic has some insight you might lack into the true value (or worthlessness) of what’s under scrutiny, although I try, at least, to make clear my position emanates from my perspective which may not necessarily lead you to agree or perceive it from my viewpoint.

  After all this prior consideration, what do we find with RBG?  Clearly it celebrates a woman of enduring values as she understands them (especially where sex/gender discrimination has polluted American society) showing her to be willing to speak bluntly (possibly too much so at times) about issues of vital importance to her, yet her normally-reserved-demeanor is given a relatable perspective by having family and old friends talk warmly of her as more than just a legal scholar enhanced by the use of grainy footage showing Ruth and Marty in their younger days, inserts of her regular workout sessions to demonstrate her determination of body as well as mind.  Even the objective images of her diminutive size juxtaposed with texts and testimony about her judicial work give—or imply, depending on your response to her priorities—an immediate sense of how impactful her presence is (and has been) concerning the vital issues she’s associated with.  If this film were structured more in debate-fashion (like how the What the Constitution … play cited above resolves itself in an active closure of its earlier components) then maybe there would be more of the negative commentary presented in those opening soundbites or inclusion of counterpoints from judicial scholars who feel Ginsburg’s misguided in her decisions/rebuttals.  But RBG’s not intended as some sort of lefty (given the public-content-stances of both the doc’s subject and her biographers) “fair and balanced, you decide” presentation, nor it a hagiographic anointment of Justice Ginsburg as an all-knowing-seer, but it does laud her judicial work underpinned by her sociopolitical positions as well as celebrate the respect many have for her public and private persona so my final judgment has to come down to what I experienced in viewing what’s on screen (acknowledging as I watch I already have high regard for Ginsburg, given her laudable [for me] résumé).  In that regard—unlike with An Inconvenient Sequel: Truth to Power (Bonni Cohen and Jon Shenk, 2017; review in our August 9, 2017 posting) where I supported the arguments presented but not the sense of Al Gore as Earth’s appointed environmental savior—I find RBG to be a very engaging, effective film because—as with the Dolores (Peter Bratt, 2017; review in our September 6, 2017 posting) doc about Dolores Huerta—it inspires me most about the issues it raises, not about a specific woman (no matter how instrumental Ginsburg and Huerta have been in bringing needed progress to these issues) as being some sort of modern-day Joan of Arc, chosen by God to bring salvation to the oppressed masses.

(I realize these images are getting a little monotonous, but they're illustrative of what the film presents.)
 Therefore, it’s the ruling of this court of private opinion (from the vocal member of Film Reviews from Two Guys in the Dark) that RBG is a well-made, engaging exploration of a significant member of our nation’s leadership (a crucial focus, given how much of what happens politically, economically, socially in our society, along with spillover effects on the rest of the world, results in outsized-influence in so many global arenas), 1 of only 9 people making lasting decisions (even those that simply leave us to the rulings of lower courts) about how our centuries-old-Constitution is to be understood in contemporary life, yet it's still a film helping to give concrete understandings about the inherent sexism (even impacting men in a negative way at times) in our culture that’s been addressed by many but given substantive address (and redress) from a fearless champion of the often-downtrodden in her unique role.  In searching for a way to then put this rambling review to rest I first stumbled upon (as well as seriously considered choosing) Bob Dylan’s “Oxford Town” (from his 1963 The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan album) inspired by the social turmoil over a Black student, James Meredith, enrolling in the formerly-segregated University of Mississippi in 1962 (the version I would have focused on is a live performance by Richie Havens, complete with lyrics in case you’re not familiar with the tune [Havens also included it on his self-named second album in 1966]), but while this song speaks of injustice (“Guns and clubs followed him down All because his face was brown”) it’s more about race than gender issues, plus it would be men speaking about wrongful situations connected to a film about a dynamic woman championing social justice, an inadequate decision.  Thus, my official Musical Metaphor to end this review comes from another dynamic woman, Beyoncé, with "Formation" (on her 2016 album Lemonade) at https://www. (a multi-award-winning-video) which also addresses racism but adds police violence toward Black communities, a counter-response of Black pride (with some explicit language in the process) from the perspective of a strong, proud woman with an attitude evoking what those who have celebrated the Notorious R.B.G. connection to Justice Ginsburg.  (If you, like me, have any trouble following Queen B’s lyrics, here are some clarifications for your aid.)

 Justice Ginsburg might not totally buy that Metaphor choice (because maybe she, like many of us, would hope instead for transcendence of all this turmoil into that place of peace dreamed of in John Lennon’s "Imagine" [from the 1971 album of the same name—I know, a male perspective again but the song’s somewhat inspired by Yoko Ono’s writings]); if not, I guess because she’s still a lawyer she’ll just have to sue me, with hopes my jury would yield the unexpected-but-supportive-decision given to Paul Newman’s down-and-out-attorney in The Verdict (Sidney Lumet, 1982), which I just watched on my weekly Netflix disc to finish out this focus on Constitutional-law-material, some of which (along with cheering on some recent victories by my local baseball—Oakland Athletics [2 of 3 over the mighty Boston Red Sox]—and basketball—Golden State Warriors [1 of 2 over the equally-mighty Houston Rockets]—teams), kept me from seeing anything else in new-release-movie-mode in recent days, but upcoming options should soon have me more actively back in the local movie theaters with commentary to share with you when next we meet. (Although that may be in a couple of weeks because I'm weary of struggling through my weekly frustrating Blogspot posting process where inadequate software keeps colliding with fragile-Safari, so I'm ready to take a short break.)*

*In closing, I'll also note RBG and just about anything else currently in release has little chance of making much of a box-office-impact—much as any of these films might need togiven the ongoing-income-avalanche accruing to Avengers: Infinity War (Anthony and Joe Russo; review in our May 3, 2018 posting) which has now moved into 5th place on the All-Time Worldwide list at $1.6 billion (at $548 million it’s merely #8 on the All-Time Domestic list but #2 on the 2018 chart behind the $696.3 million of Black Panther [Ryan Coogler; review in our February 22, 2018  posting]—the accountants at Disney can barely keep up with tallying these revenues but they'd better hurry before they get another surge from the rapidly-upcoming Solo: A Star Wars Story [Ron Howard]).
Related Links Which You Might Find Interesting:
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*A Google software glitch causes every Two Guys posting prior to August 26, 2016 to have an inaccurate (dead) link to this Summary page; from then forward, though, this link is accurate.

Here’s more information about RBG: (in the upper left corner click the little box with 3 lines to get this site’s features, including an informative press kit) (27:03 interview with directors Julie Cohen and Betsy West, including some footage of Justice Ginsburg on various topics)

Please note that to Post a Comment below about our reviews you need to have either a Google account (which you can easily get at if you need to sign up) or other sign-in identification from the pull-down menu below before you preview or post.

If you’d rather contact Ken directly rather than leaving a comment here please use my email address of if you truly have too much time on your hands you might want to explore some even-longer-and-more-obtuse-than-my-film-reviews—if that even seems possible—academic articles about various cinematic topics at my website,, which could really give you something to talk to me about.)

By the way, if you’re ever at The Hotel California knock on my door—but you know what the check out policy is so be prepared to stay for awhile. Ken

P.S.  Just to show that I haven’t fully flushed Texas out of my system here’s an alternative destination for you, Home in a Texas Bar, with Gary P. Nunn and Jerry Jeff Walker.  But wherever the rest of my body may be my heart’s always with my longtime-companion, lover, and wife, Nina Kindblad, so here’s our favorite shared song—Neil Young’s "Harvest Moon"
—from the performance we saw at the Desert Trip concerts in Indio, CA on October 15, 2016 (as a full moon was rising over the stadium) because “I’m still in love with you,” my dearest, a never-changing-reality even as the moon waxes and wanes over the months/years to come.
Finally, for the data-oriented among you, Google stats say over the past month (which they seem to measure from right now back 30 days) the total unique hits at this site were 5,966 (still slowly rising back toward a bragable-level even though I keep concentrating on obscure films, at least until it’s Star Wars time again soon); below is a snapshot of where and by what means those responses have come from within the previous week:


  1. I liked it but the documentary may be singing to the choir.

  2. Hi rj, Agreed, but I'm glad to be among the choir being sung to. However, I would hope her decades-long battles for balanced gender rights would be of some appeal even to those who don't care for her personally, but in our current sociopolitical climate even that may be too much to ask. Ken

  3. Amazingly the film had a months long run in the Central Texas area and now is being broadcast free on CNN. I have a 88 year old Republican woman friend who reminds me of her. She is retired military and is still active in Republican groups, but I could not convince her to see the film even though others also suggested it to her because of their similar independence and personalities. Meanwhile another 90 year old middle of the road woman with a more nurturing manner loved the film, although she had to wait for Netflix before seeing it.