Documentaries about political figures could gladly do without a political agenda, but in such charged times, a feature on a prominent Supreme Court Justice cannot be asked to remain neutral. For the sake of an audience though, filmmakers should be asked to be level-headed in their praise. A positive viewpoint does not inherently connote fluff, but a piece that shows little interest in substantively criticizing its subject should expect to be considered frivolous, graciously or not.
RBG documents the life of Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s long career on the Supreme Court, focusing on her socially liberal votes, values, and personality. Special emphasis is placed on her votes to end the Virginia Military Institute’s gender-exclusive admissions policy, her advocacy for workplace equality, and her modest reflections on an ongoing career well spent.
As the film deservedly frames Ginsburg as a woman’s rights icon of past and present, directors Julie Cohen and Betsy West present her as living legend; she is myth personified as flesh and blood. According to the documentary, she works out much more than any other woman of 85, is in with the youth crowd, and, most importantly, is always on the right side of history. Beyond seemingly reasonable reproach, everyone interviewed fawns over Ginsberg. Even current Republican Senators, like Orrin Hatch of Utah, offers kind words.
Because the onslaught of passionate appraisal and breakneck fondness for its subject, RBG feels dishonest. Favor on social issues now belongs to the left, as a majority of the United States population support abortion, gay marriage, and the other pervasive issues tackled in the documentary. Fortunately, it’s no longer quite as bold to be as correct as Ginsburg was. What isn’t shown are her stances on almost anything else. According to RBG, the easiest way to judge ones political mortality is to look at their stance on a small set of issues. If you check out, you’re accepted.
RBG FRAMES ITS SUBJECT IN AN OVERWHELMINGLY POSITIVE LIGHT LEAVING MORE TO BE DESIRED FOR THOSE LOOKING FOR A COMPLETE VIEW OF GINSBURG’S CAREER
Beyond a particular penchant for the broad concept of equal rights, the documentary does little to distinguish her legal philosophy. Is the constitution a living document? Do we interpret founding principles based on the times that we live in? What did she think and why? Important questions that could potentially alienate audiences that already appreciate Ginsburg’s work are either sidelined or left unexplored. As RGB portrays the Supreme Court, only social issues that might rally both a liberal crowd and pockets of Republicans appear before the bench.
In order to craft a full character piece, nits do not need to be picked in legacies and lives; not everyone has skeletons festering in their closet. Still, Ginsburg has been on the bench for 40 years now. More likely than not, she has made a bad decision that has hurt someone in a meaningful way. Without an attempt to find those that could substantively disagree with her, the film’s assessment of her career feels stacked in her favor. In Get Me Roger Stone, a documentary about the controversial political strategist, the filmmakers do not come to a conclusion beyond presenting his impact on the political landscape. His legacy becomes a part of history and it can be celebrated or reviled; a mature viewer can come to a conclusion themselves. Full objectivity may not exist, but it is an ideal for a reason.
Criticisms only come in the form of grandiose complaints. Empty insults and a collection of ad homonyms open the film; the film straw man’s Ginsburg’s detractors by using clips of Michael Savage, Bill O’Reilly, and Mark Levin. From the beginning, RBG proudly flaunts its views that her detractors could only be ultra far right-wing geezers. The farthest the film will go is a reference to Ginsburg’s questionable comments on Donald Trump during his campaigning. Spending an inappropriately truncated amount of time on her failure to remain impartial towards a presidential candidate, the film’s deepest criticism only sinks so far as to say “Ginsburg broke the rules so she could slam Trump in public.” It’s hardly the most hard-hitting critique, considering his pop culture status as the planet’s biggest punching bag.
Not everyone can smell a thinly cloaked bias, but everyone can whiff out the fluff. For a left-leaning moviegoer beaten down by the onslaught of an active right-wing administration, the idea that political idols can still exist may be comforting at the moment. Still, viewing politics through the lens of finding someone to wholeheartedly champion is unhealthy on both sides of the political aisle. The question shouldn’t be “Is the film good?” Rather, the question should be “Are you in the mood to eat a handful of unhealthy, but comforting whipped cream?”