Sometimes, one's duties as a critic can clash with one's feelings as a citizen. Betsy West and Julie Cohen's mostly engaging documentary RBG, about the life and career of Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, stands as a film that informs, and sometimes even delights, with its portrait of one of the more remarkable lawyers, judges and feminist icons of our time. As a work of feel-good advocacy, it checks pretty much all the boxes, making its way through the key cases of her career, while also offering a personal look at the woman herself. Yet it's hard not to want more from RBG, precisely because its subject is so remarkable and her ideas so consequential.
As they leap through the years, West and Cohen give us a compelling account of Ginsburg's key cases, starting from her days as a lawyer with the ACLU's Women's Rights Project. She was building, step by step, a broader case, one for women's equality, using each individual argument to advance a vision for equal rights. The filmmakers find intriguingly cinematic ways to represent these arguments: Onscreen, the text of Ginsburg's speeches hovers in the air, as we hear audio of her reading key passages.
West and Cohen know their audience, and they know how to speak to it. RBG advocates, but only to the converted. Along the way, the film playfully shows us glimpses of the cultural phenomenon Ginsburg has become (SNL skits, T-shirts, mugs, etc.). But it does so only with the slightest hint of irony, giving the sense that the film itself is just one more part of the phenomenon of #BrandRBG.