Reflecting on an unexpected icon

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Jurist Ruth Bader Ginsburg… championed the rights of minorities unable to speak for themselves.

Film reviewer DOUGAL MACDONALD writes: EARLY in August, 2018, “CityNews” published this review and it is repeated here to honour the memory of Ruth Bader Ginsburg, whose passing I mourn, as I imagine many readers also will do. And I fear for the possible effect that current events in the US may do to sully that memory.

“RBG” (PG) ****

THIS acronymic title announces Ruth Bader Ginsburg, the second woman to become an Associate Justice in the US Supreme Court. 

A dry subject for a movie? It depends on your point of view of the rights of the common man and woman.

In 1789, the framers of the US Constitution could never have imagined the court’s influence on daily life today in a country where the rule of law encompasses modern attitudes and procedures. 

RBG, as she is affectionately known, is a physically diminutive legal powerhouse. The film examines several of the landmark cases on which she sat. She has championed the rights of minorities unable to speak for themselves. Her judgements come directly to the point of the cases before the court.

Directed by Julie Cohen and Betsy West, “RBG” delivers a family portrait and professional CV of an unexpected pop-culture icon, documenting her life and achievements with care, affection and forthright energy. It’s entertaining at every step, often amusing, always respectful not merely for the judicial office she occupies. She is not a woman to mess about with.

Then, in mid-February last year, I wrote the following review. 

“On The Basis of Sex” (M) *** and a half

SIX months ago, I gave four stars to the documentary “RBG”, describing it as a “family portrait and professional CV of an unexpected pop culture icon”.

At that time Mimi Leder’s biographical film written by Daniel Stiepleman dealing with the early life and burgeoning career of RBG may well have been filmed. It’s a re-enactment of a young wife and mother, determined to become a lawyer, from the 1959 class at Harvard Law School to winning a landmark judgement in the Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals.

Dry, wordy stuff? All those libraries filled with statutes and law reports and prestigious journals to master? Where’s the action, the suspense, the conflict, the tension, those elements that every law student must master before being let loose on clients seeking judgement or defence? And which together with basic humanity also form the basis of every cinema box-office hit.

Leder and Stiepleman deliver those well enough in a two-hour movie canvassing significant events in Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s early private, academic and professional lives to a climax telling how the Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals overturned a Taxation Court decision denying her male client the right to funding that would have been made available to a woman in the same circumstances. 

English actress Felicity Jones carries “On The Basis of Sex”, standing front and centre in virtually every sequence in the film. Armie Hammer plays her husband and Justin Theroux is American Civil Liberty Union boss Mel Wulf. Sam Waterston plays Erwin Griswold, Dean of Harvard Law School at the time when Ruth, already a Cornell graduate, began her law course. 

Griswold, an ultra-conservative, later US solicitor-general, noted that the US Constitution makes no reference to women whom he believed belonged at home, and that success of the ACLU campaign would rip the fabric of American society to shreds. After a year at Harvard, Ruth transferred to Columbia Law School. 

Bill Clinton appointed Ruth, after a stellar career in law, legal education and legal scholarship, to become an Associate Justice of the Supreme Court. And before Mimi Leder released her film, Ruth walked up to the camera on the forecourt of the Supreme Court in Washington, as if to say “This film gets it right”.

“RBG” is available to stream on the ABC’s iView platform. “On The Basis of Sex” is available on the Binge streaming platform, however an exhibitor with their finger on the pulse could do worse than run a cinema season on either or both these two films.



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Dougal Macdonald
“CityNews” film reviewer

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