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'RBG' review: Watchable, informative, occasionally moving look at the Supreme Court justice

U.S. Supreme Court justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg

 U.S. Supreme Court justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg in a scene from "RBG."  Credit: Magnolia Pictures

PLOT The long and influential life of Ruth Bader Ginsburg, associate justice of the U.S. Supreme Court.

RATED PG (some adult talk)

LENGTH 1:37

PLAYING AT Malverne Cinema 4, Manhasset Cinemas, Cinema Arts Centre in Huntington

BOTTOM LINE A watchable, informative and occasionally moving life history.

It was soon after her dissenting opinion in a 2013 voting rights case that Ruth Bader Ginsburg, the octogenarian Supreme Court justice, became a pop-cultural icon. Thanks to social-media-savvy millennials, the schoolmarmish Ginsburg was affectionately re-christened “Notorious RBG,” after the scowling rapper Notorious B.I.G. Shirts, coffee mugs and even tattoos followed, and so did the inevitable backlash. Slate writer Dahlia Lithwick worried that the justice’s feminist ideals could be undermined by the rapper’s macho image; Justice Clarence Thomas, in a rare vocal moment, lamented the “mythmaking around the court and who we are.”

“RBG,” a documentary by Betsy West and Julie Cohen, is here to keep the meme alive. It’s a straight-ahead chronicle of Ginsburg’s life and impressive career, told in a brisk 97 minutes by two filmmakers whose background in the no-nonsense world of television news serves them well. The film’s focus on Ginsburg’s early years as a crusading lawyer for women’s rights helps explain her current reputation as a forceful dissenter on an increasingly right-leaning court. On a more personal note, the film devotes time to Ginsburg’s marriage to Marty Ginsburg, her staunchest supporter. The result is a watchable, informative and occasionally moving life history.

Ginsburg, born in Brooklyn in 1933, emerges as a woman who has seen remarkable change, and often helped initiate it. As a Columbia Law graduate, she was hard-pressed to find work as a woman, but with the ACLU she helped argue cases that, one by one, became building blocks in a legal foundation for gender equality. Some of Ginsburg’s plaintiffs are interviewed here, notably Sharron Frontiero, who fought for equal benefits in the U.S. Air Force, and Lilly Ledbetter, whose name would eventually grace the Fair Pay Act that became President Barack Obama’s first piece of legislation in 2009.

“RBG” has fun with its somewhat shy and serious (don’t say “retiring”) subject. The filmmakers show her Kate McKinnon’s “SNL” impression for the first time — Ginsburg loves it — and capture her cameo in a Washington National Opera production. The one critical moment in this mostly laudatory film comes when Ginsburg labels Donald Trump a “faker” in 2016, an ill-considered comment that drew the wrath of Republicans and required a public apology.

Through it all flickers the late Marty Ginsburg, a successful tax lawyer who rooted for his wife all the way to the country’s highest court. In a way, he represented the very notion of equality this remarkable woman has been fighting for all her life.

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