Run time: 1 hour 37 minutes
Stars: Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Gloria Steinem, Nina Totenberg
Directors: Julie Cohen and Betsy West
You don't have to wait for November's biopic On the Basis of Sex, starring Felicity Jones (Rogue One) as the young attorney Ruth Bader Ginsburg, who's now 85, a Supreme Court Justice for 25 years, and a pop-culture superhero. Meet Ginsburg herself in this smart, heartwarming documentary, which is sure to swell her burgeoning fan base, though it may annoy some conservative detractors. Justice Ginsburg is famous for being a contradiction: an intensely soft-spoken grandmother, a mere 61 inches tall, who literally changed America with her arguments before the Supreme Court for women's equal rights, and speaks with scathing precision when dissenting from her fellow justices' opinions.
The striking contrast between her small size and voice and her forceful impact have inspired a blog, Notorious RBG (a pun on the late, very large gangsta rapper Notorious B.I.G.), a best-selling biography, endless web memes, popular RBG products, Kate McKinnon's celebratory caricature of her on SNL, and now two movies. The real RBG started out as a stunningly attractive discrimination victim, disrespected by Harvard Law School despite her brilliant workaholism, barred from law firm employment on the basis of sex, and condescended to by all-male Supreme Court justices — whom she nonetheless won over with her arguments against sex discrimination five times out of six. The film shows that she did it by heeding her late mother's advice to be "ladylike" — which meant not yelling, since that meant giving in to emotion, but also not knuckling under. That was tough in a time when women could be fired for getting pregnant, husbands could not be prosecuted for raping their wives, and justices simply did not get what was wrong with the status quo. "I did see myself as kind of a kindergarten teacher in those days," she muses, "because the judges didn't think sex discrimination existed."
The two best things about the film are its portrait of Ginsburg's family dynamics and its privileged glimpse behind the scenes of the Supreme Court. In a crisp, clear fashion, the directors present the actual audio of some of Ginsburg's most important arguments before the justices, and insight into her close friendship with the late Justice Antonin Scalia, a fellow opera buff who opposed much of everything Ginsburg stood for. You never get too deep into the legal weeds, but you emerge from the movie with a deepened understanding of how the system works, and how Ginsburg's canny, strategic, yelling-averse technique advanced her cause way more than other activists' noisy protests did. One colleague compares her patient, relentless work on cases to "knitting a sweater," and this movie reveals her distinctive pattern.
Even better is the portrait of her family life. Her kids explain that their notebook "The Times Mommy Laughed" was "parsimonious with entries," but her almost Spock-like rationalism was balanced by their lawyer father Marty's extraordinarily outgoing personality. Talk about a marriage of true minds: Unlike any boy the young Ruth ever met, he liked her brilliance, and didn't mind her shyness nor her cooking, which he cheerfully admitted was a crime against cuisine. Their daughter once explained, "Daddy does the cooking, Mommy does the thinking." Yet Daddy was a thinker too, and we learn from President Bill Clinton that one reason for her appointment to the highest court in the land was the excellent lobbying of the incredibly well-connected Mr. Ginsburg. Behind every great woman is a great man who did not stand in her way. Armie Hammer is a great actor on a roll lately, but when he plays Marty Ginsburg in the forthcoming Ruth Bader Ginsburg biopic, he's up against serious competition from the real Marty in RBG. If he's not blazing great, the court of critical opinion will rule in reality's favor.