Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg (RBG for short) has experienced a rich and fruitful life. Yet all her contributions, however epoch-making, did not change her essentially retiring nature; she is not one to make a show. However eventful her life, it has always been somewhat under wraps. Only recently, more so after the 2010 death of her beloved husband Marty, has Ginsburg come into her own as an atypical celebrity. That celebrity may trend a bit closer to rock star after the release of “RBG” (opening May 4, this film is rated “PG” and runs 97 mins.).
“RBG” is part life story, part personality profile, and part legal history of gender equality, much of which Ginsberg contributed to. That contribution is recognized in “RBG” with the descriptions of a landmark series of arguments she made before the Supreme Court in the 1970’s when practicing in New York City as ACLU’s general counsel. These cases for equal pay standards and female recognition in the military and the professions are not only described in the film but enhanced by hearing—from audio tapes—her own oral arguments. It was these cases that led her being named to the DC Circuit Court of Appeals by Jimmy Carter in 1980, and her eventual assumption to the Supreme Court in 1993, nominated by Bill Clinton.
Her Supreme Court tenure is also given due weight in this film, directed by Julie Cohen and Betsy West. Here again, her major agreements and dissents are heard on audiotape, her deliberate voice giving additional authenticity to her arguments. She is so logical, so sensible—how can anybody not agree with the woman?
Ribboned through the legal RBG is the personal one, a tiny Jewish Brooklyn girl of unhurried drive and robust moral values, excelling in school at every level, with eventual college work at Cornell, Harvard, and a degree from Columbia Law School. Central to that life is her meeting, as teenagers at Cornell, the love of her life, Marty Ginsburg, then following him, with two kids in tow, to study in New York. Their personalities and demeanor were apparent opposites, but their bond was adamantine. Through file footage of the irrepressible Marty and the testimony of Ginsburg’s two children, John and Jane, we get a clear sense of a wholly anchored family.
Other elements of Ginsburg’s story are told. Her warm friendship with her ideological opposite on the Court, Justice Antonin Scalia, is nicely sketched, highlighted by their joshing during a dual stage appearance. Her passionate love of opera is also noted, including a sprightly scene where she appears in a speaking role in “The Daughter of the Regiment” with the Washington National Opera, surely a highlight of her life. A sour episode is also noted: her denouncing candidate Trump during the campaign of 2016, an outburst for which she (as a sitting judge) later apologized. Her everyday life at the Watergate apartments in DC is also shown, including her steady workouts at the gym.
What is finally truly telling in “RBG” is her recorded testimony, delivered at various points in her life and up to the present day. We hear her in court appearances, testifying at her Senate hearings, making major court arguments, speaking in public appearances and interviews, and, most intimately, with the filmmakers themselves who get her to reveal just a bit more of herself. This is a most winning documentary, one that befits an unassuming American icon.
This surprising film is a well-crafted portrayal of a life interrupted, based on real events that actually happened to the people depicted. It’s a “documentary” in its look and method but is in fact a careful fiction, and the “real” players, who could appear as amateurs, reveal themselves as authentic and true. (The film is rated “R” for language and runs 103 minutes.)
We encounter Brady Blackburn (Brady Jandreau) as he awakens from a dream about horses with a vicious wound on his head. He was a promising rodeo cowboy, but a horrible spill from a bucking bronco has left him badly injured. We see him in excruciating pain, pulling staples from his wound, knowing that his days performing rodeo are over. Doctors have advised him to never ride again. Since being a “rider” has been his whole life, the future looks barren.
Brady lives in the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota’s Badlands with his dad Wayne (Tim Jandreau), a Sioux ranchman and widower who has turned sullen and cynical and uses gambling as a crutch. His little sister Lilly (Lilly Jandreau) is a 15-year-old with Asperger’s Syndrome who is full of spirit and love for her brother. He has a coterie of buddies, all rodeo hopefuls, too, and they hearten him, but they also have riding futures he cannot expect. With no work, he spends too much time watching old videos of rodeo competitions. His life is sparked only by visiting his best friend, Lane Scott, a promising bull rider who had his own rodeo accident and has become brain-damaged and wheelchair bound.
What motivates Brady is his love of horses, including one called Gus, on whom he spends pleasant hours riding. How he resolves the collapse of his life plan makes for compelling viewing.
A large part of the surprise of “The Rider” is its creator. Chloé Zhao was Beijing-born and US-educated and now works here. She comes to this project from previous experience. In 2015, she won acclaim with “Songs My Brother Taught Me,” another thoughtful take on another struggling Indian family on the reservation. It was during filming “Songs” that she discovered Brady and his family and resolved to tell another tale of the plains.
Clearly, the stark beauty of Pine Ridge has inspired Zhao. Her use of vivid landscapes is brilliant, especially for scenes shot at the “magic hours” of dawn and dusk, and she and her fine cinematographer (Joshua James Richards) offer a genuine and generous vision and avoid excess. She tells her watchful story at a measured pace, giving scenes a chance to breathe, never more so than in a lengthy sequence that shows the true horse trainer that Brady is, gently, serenely, breaking in a skittish wild horse. It is simple yet riveting cinema.
Hill resident Mike Canning has written on movies for the Hill Rag since 1993 and is a member of the Washington Area Film Critics Association. He is the author of “Hollywood on the Potomac: How the Movies View Washington, DC.” His reviews and writings on film can be found online at www.mikesflix.com.