“RBG” elevates a justice, celebrates a marriage

(Courtesy of Magnolia Pictures)

If you’re already down with “RBG”—this year’s hit documentary on Ruth Bader Ginsburg, which makes its TV debut Sept. 3 on CNN—you will know it’s about a woman who was centerstage in our national struggle for gender equality and equal rights long before she was made an associate justice of the U.S. Supreme Court. (“All I ask of our brethren is that they take their feet off our necks,” is one oft-heard Ginsburg quote).

The unbridled venom spewed at such a tiny woman comes across as unseemly, if not wildly unexpected.

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You will also probably be aware that, despite the hero-worship lavished on the so-called “notorious RBG,” there’s another view of Ginsburg, which directors Julie Cohen and Betsy West acknowledge with a smattering of alt-right voices laid over the introductory music to their movie:

“This witch! This evil-doer! This monster!”– Michael Savage

“An absolute disgrace” – Donald Trump

“She’s a zombie. The woman’s a zombie” – Bill O’Reilly.

The unbridled venom spewed at such a tiny woman comes across as unseemly, if not wildly unexpected. But ameliorating the bile is that music we are hearing—the overture to “The Marriage of Figaro,” which is a much more appropriate theme than most viewers will realize going in.

RBG and granddaughter
In a scene from the film, RBG sits with her granddaughter (Courtesy of Magnolia Pictures).

Ginsburg is a devoted opera fan, as many do know; that she and her jurisprudential nemesis Antonin Scalia were fellow buffs was a basis for their unlikely friendship. We even see the justice appearing as the Duchess of Crackenthorp in Gaetano Donizetti’s “The Daughter of the Regiment” during a National Opera production two nights after the 2016 election. (One of the few roles in grand opera that is a speaking part, it provided Ginsburg the opportunity to address, very cagily, the electoral travesty that had just transpired.)

But in addition to being a biographical documentary about a pioneering jurist, “RBG” is also a portrait of a marriage—and not necessarily a very modern one, at least at its outset. Ruth Bader married fellow Brooklynite Marty Ginsburg a month after she graduated from Cornell, and she followed him to Oklahoma, where he was stationed as an R.O.T.C. officer after being drafted; she delayed her enrollment for two years at Harvard Law School, which they both entered together; Marty got cancer and Ruth took care of him and their child while studying law; when Marty got a job in New York, Ruth went too, transferring to Columbia Law School, where she tied for first in her class.

But Marty Ginsburg, regarded as perhaps the best tax lawyer in New York, was Ruth’s greatest champion—a good-humored man who cheerfully accepted the role of “second fiddle” to his (more) brilliant wife, while always lobbying on her behalf, especially when President Bill Clinton was presented with the opportunity of filling the Supreme Court seat of retiring Justice Byron White. Clinton had a long line of candidates ahead of this relatively unknown U.S. Appeals Court justice. As those interviewed agree, including Clinton, Ruth clinched the deal. But it was Marty who set it in motion.

But in addition to being a biographical documentary about a pioneering jurist, “RBG” is also a portrait of a marriage.

The Marty-Ruth alliance is a huge part of why “RBG” has struck a chord with audiences. (Marty Ginsburg died in 2010.) It humanizes its subject in a way all the interviews with family, old friends and even a few politicians from the friendly opposition (Orrin Hatch, for instance) can’t do. Those people weigh in the way you would expect. They extol Ginsburg’s talents and mind and talk about her retiring personality, the ways it contrasted and complemented Marty’s ebullience and how her sense of fairness led her down some unlikely paths—to Weinberger v. Wiesenfeld, for instance, in which a widower HAD BEEN denied survivor benefits that a widow would have been given without argument. (“Sex discrimination hurts everyone” was her mantra).

The film doesn’t really get into the fact that, as the co-founder of the Women’s Rights Project of the A.C.L.U., she often came onto those landmark cases after they had already been launched by other plaintiffs and lawyers. Still, Ginsburg’s contributions to our current legal world are established as profound and revolutionary, although her position on abortion remains pro-choice.

“RBG” includes some archival material, some contemporary interviews with Ginsburg and of course footage of her working out at her gym. One of the best bits in the film is watching her watching—for the first time, it seems—the comedian Kate McKinnon’s so-called impersonation during the “Weekend Update” segment of “Saturday Night Live.” (“That’s a Gins-burn!” McKinnon exclaims, after delivering some very un-Ginsburgian takedown of someone, or something).

The cumulative effect of “RBG,” which is certainly manipulative, is enough that you want to go upscale in finding ways of describing the tiny legal giant at the center of the movie: “Liberal hero,” for instance (Rachel Maddow). Or “though she be but little, she is fierce” (William Shakespeare). Or, you might just paraphrase Winston Churchill: Never has so much been owed by so many to the nonretirement of so few.

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Allison Quinn
1 year 2 months ago

She is the most ideological extremist judge on the SCOTUS. Her votes can be totally be predicted before she even hears the evidence of a case!

It will be a happy day for Americans and Catholics when she retires. We need moderate voices.

Carlos Orozco
1 year 2 months ago

Yes, a wolf in sheep's clothing.

Ann Johnson
1 year 2 months ago

"Most ideological"? Predictable vote? Clarence Thomas falls into that category very neatly. And not all of us who are both American and Catholic share your opinion.

Stanley Kopacz
1 year 2 months ago

I hope she hangs in there long enough to prevent another Trump Mammonite plutocrat from being appointed. Increasing serfdom of the American people should progress without restraint now but maybe we can have some hope for the distant future albeit not much.

Iris Halbert
1 year 2 months ago

Nothing is more complicated than bluetooth settings windows 10 which is so messed up you have to need a guideline.

Phillip Stone
1 year 2 months ago

too much Koolade Iris?

Gregory Hamilton
1 year 2 months ago

Let us not forget that she is the cone who said "Roe was originally set up so that we would have less if the type of people we didn't want"
You can look it up.
Justice? I think it's a sham.

Gregory Hamilton
1 year 2 months ago

https://www.usnews.com/news/blogs/god-and-country/2009/07/14/does-ruth-bader-ginsburg-support-eugenics

Thomas Rippon
1 year 2 months ago

I saw and heard this spunk in the early 1970's, when RBG taught me Constitutional Law at Columbia...she's dynamite: an explosion in a small packet, succinctness in a small suit. Few can agree with everything she says, but all should pay attention...not for the grades, but for the gradations, when she occasionally makes some.

Henry Brown
1 year 2 months ago

I am at a loss as to why America Magazine celebrates someone who votes to uphold

Roe vs Wade at every opportunity.

"Electoral Travesty of 2016 ?"

It is bad enough that America has editors who knew/heard of Mccarrick's abuses

and did nothing, as far as they have admitted about it, and yet still serve as editors at

America, but to celebrate the life of someone who says justice is carried out when

babes in the womb are killed...

I did not vote for Trump, if he were impeached and found guilty by the Senate and removed

from office by Tuesday - I would not protest, but he won the election.

Why is Mr. Anderson given space in America Magazine and why are the editors

not editing out remarks he makes that have nothing to do with reviewing a film ?

Gregory Hamilton
1 year 2 months ago

Totally agree. I think she wouldn't at all if Christianity was to disappear...

Robin Smith
1 year 2 months ago

Because there's more to American life than your obsession with women's choice? Because catholics might want to read an opinion piece about something other than your obsession? Because it's a film about law, politics and religion?
Because it ain't all about you.

Henry Brown
1 year 2 months ago

Robin,

That is right, it is not all about me, it is about the tens of millions of babes in the womb that Justice G thinks have been justly killed.
So why does America expect us to celebrate her life ?

karen oconnell
1 year 2 months ago

disappointed in the fact that so many readers (or at least commenters) are still obsessing about abortion as the '''only real evil.'' i wonder if these annotators get upset about the ''tens of millions'' of LIVE, BREATHING human beings among us who suffer from a lack of health care... shelter...education??? and by the way...i am not even going to ask what they think about ''immigrants!''---- of course- at one point in the course of time, we or our family members were in fact immigrants...and were treated miserably. it is sort of a 'pay back' to the wrong source of pain.

Henry Brown
1 year 2 months ago

Karen,

I am against non-medical Abortions.
I work to help young mothers/parents and mothers to be.
I am for Universal Health Care.
Leave from work for new parents.
I think Homelessness could be ended tomorrow if people lived out their Christian values.
I have taught children no one thought could be taught.
I am for helping Immigrants.

My ancestors were here before Columbus.

Abortion is the killing of our fellow humans and 90 % of abortions are not necessary.

Why is someone who thinks abortions should be allowed as a matter of justice

is featured and feted

by America Magazine -

is beyond tragic.

Mike Macrie
1 year 2 months ago

Sister Simone Campbell, a Catholic Nun who supported Obama Care, said, “the reverence for life that underpins Catholic opposition to abortion also argues for passage of
healthcare reform.”
Moreover, she said, the reverence
for life that underpins Catholic opposition to abortion also argues for passage of healthcare reform.
"For us, first of all, tens of thousands of people are dying each year because they don't have access to healthcare, so that is a life issue," said Campbell, who is affiliated with an Encino-based order, the Sisters of Social Service..
Sometimes Individuals that we don’t agree with achieve a greater good.

Phillip Stone
1 year 2 months ago

Tens of thousands of Americans can have health care without having to kill a single baby in a single womb
On the other hand, eugenics is diabolically evil and based upon totally erroneous ideas about DNA, race and culture.

And, I am not American but I can remember what I saw and heard - Obama lied through his teeth about his healthcare bill, said one thing and then did another.

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