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The remarkable “RBG” gets a remarkable documentary


Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg is the gym doing her exercising. (Courtesy of Magnolia Home Entertainment)


Blu-ray, DVD; 2018, PG for some thematic elements and profanity; streaming via Amazon Video, FandangoNOW, Google Play, iTunes, Vudu, YouTube

Best extra: Added interviews

A TINY, 85-year-old woman is in a gym, soberly lifting weights, doing push-ups and planks, and taking orders from a huge, muscled trainer. That’s how “RBG,” the documentary about Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, opens.

It’s a fitting start. Viewers soon learn about this extraordinarily tough cookie, who went from a quiet Brooklyn beauty to a jurist who became a force for equal treatment under the law for both women and men. Using interviews with childhood friends, family members, politicians, media figures and colleagues, as well as archival footage and photos, co-producers/directors Betsy West and Julie Cohen present this engaging and inspiring profile of an unlikely media star, who earned the nickname “Notorious RBG.”

We learn about the trajectory of Ginsburg’s life and career, including her 63-year marriage to Martin Ginsburg, who died in 2010. He provided unswerving devotion, support and promotion of his wife’s career, while conducting a successful tax law practice of his own. He was also a constant cheerful, joke-telling counterpoint to his wife’s comparatively serious personality. Thanks to Jimmy Carter, she became a federal judge in 1980, following an impressive track record with 14th Amendment gender-discrimination cases. In 1993, during Bill Clinton’s tenure, she joined the Supreme Court.

Ruth Bader Ginsburg became a federal judge under President Jimmy Carter.

The U.S. Supreme Court Justices in 1993.

A lighter side of Justice Ginsburg revolves around the opera, a passion she shared with one of her colleagues, Antonin Scalia. As a result, a warm friendship developed between the two, despite their dramatically different points of view. A thrill for Ginsburg was performing a brief opening night speaking part in the Washington National Opera’s production of Donizetti’s “Daughter of the Regiment,” right after the 2016 election. Ginsburg added some relevant lines to the script, which elicited howls of laughter from the audience.

This Magnolia Home Entertainment Blu-ray looks excellent, with recent recordings presented in state-of-the-art HD, and the many bits of archival footage as good as can be expected. The soundtrack is also fine, with all dialogue very clear. Subtitles are provided, if needed.

Extras include a handful of deleted or extended scenes, and additional interviews. Ginsburg’s physical trainer, Bryant Johnson, compares her to “a cyborg, a machine … and she never complains.” He boasts that the justice’s bone density has increased since he began working with her.

Her 26-year-old granddaughter, Clara Spera, calls Ginsburg “Bubbe,” the Yiddish word for grandma, and speaks admiringly of her grandparents’ marriage: “They made each other better in their careers.” Spera praises Ginsburg’s clothing style: “She’s very fashionable … she rocks it!” One of Ginsburg’s former colleagues from the D.C. Circuit Court praises her “sense of the institution” of the law, as well as her meticulousness when it came to written opinions.

Her 26-year-old granddaughter, Clara Spera, calls Ginsburg “Bubbe.”

Two of Ginsburg’s friends from high school reveal that her nickname was “Kicky,” but aren’t quite sure how she got it. They note that Ginsburg would always fret after an exam, sure that she failed, only to discover later that she had aced it. They saw their friend as “an enigma,” who was quiet and reserved, yet quite popular and involved in such high school activities as playing cello in the orchestra and being a baton twirler.

Ginsburg’s two children, Jane and James, recall their mother discussing her cases for the ACLU with them at the dinner table. A shortcoming? The siblings laugh at the subject of Ginsburg’s many culinary failures. Her son declares he could never eat swordfish again, after his mother’s attempt to cook it, adding “My father and I kicked her out of the kitchen!”

— Peggy Earle

Justice Ginsburg in her office.




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