Few types of films are more awkward to sit through than listless and unremarkable biographical documentaries that fall short of their inspiring subjects. Touring the film festival circuit since 2019 and finally available to the general public via virtual cinemas, Freida Lee Mock’s “Ruth: Justice Ginsburg in Her Own Words” unfortunately yields one such bumpy viewing experience.
On one hand, it is tough not to adore the central figure of “Ruth,” the legendary and influential Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, who passed away last September and has been a lifelong, passionate teacher and practitioner of law, fighting against various forms of unconstitutional discrimination in the U.S. On the other, it’s curiously difficult to stay engaged with Mock’s film that merely puts forth a paint-by-numbers assembly of the wealth of material it has at its disposal.
“Ruth” consists of a collection of talking-head interviews, historical photographs and, mostly, extensive archival footage that aims to put the voice of Ginsburg front and center, to both electrify and educate the viewers about her strenuous career journey through the patriarchal ranks of the judiciary field in a prejudiced country. Sadly, it mostly plays like a safe infomercial, giving us repetitive soundbites and facts about a real-life hero that we are already deeply familiar with.
Part of the misfortune surrounding “Ruth” and its filmmaker Mock (the director of the Oscar-winning 1994 doc “Maya Lin: A Strong Clear Vision”) is surely the film’s late-to-the-party timing. For anyone who’s seen 2019’s Oscar-nominated “RBG,” a rousing and immensely entertaining documentary by Betsy West and Julie Cohen, there isn’t much that is especially enlightening or fresh offered by this attempt. Similarly, those who caught Mimi Leder’s moving and gloriously Hollywood-ized narrative feature “On the Basis of Sex” won’t necessarily find a lot that is new in “Ruth” — it is telling that Mock’s movie makes audiences wish they were instead watching one of these aforementioned Ginsburg films.
Also at play here is the discomforting datedness of the film that was made during the Trump presidency, prior to the fiercely liberal Justice’s passing and the rushed confirmation of the conservative Amy Coney Barrett to fill that Supreme Court vacancy in a hurry. It registers as clumsy at best when one of the film’s array of interviewees suggests that Justice Ginsburg continues to be in great health. In other words, it often seems like a huge, present-day chapter is missing from “Ruth.” This feels especially distressing at a time when many are wondering whether Ginsburg’s decades-spanning work in defense of women’s rights will be threatened in the hands of today’s conservative-leaning Supreme Court.
Similarly, Ginsburg’s famous friendship with the late, opera-loving conservative Justice Antonin Scalia — a facet of her legacy beautifully depicted in West and Cohen’s film — feels all too greenly represented in “Ruth” under the banner of “reaching across the aisle,” a theory that perhaps feels too innocent from the lens of today’s sharp social and political divides.
In an attempt to give “Ruth” an inquisitive shape, Mock kicks off her film with a question, asking how a person with three strikes against her — as a female, a Jewish woman and a mother — rose to the highest court of the land. To tell her story, she melds together numerous clips of Justice Ginsburg meeting with various special-interest student groups of mostly 5th graders, answering their surprisingly eloquent questions about her life and battling gender discrimination. “I did very well in law school. It wasn’t possible to do any better,” Ginsburg says in one of these instances. “But not a single law firm invited me for interviews.”
While these scenes with the younger generations are emotional and most welcome, they also render as too basic for older audiences. More informative are footage and pictures from Ginsburg’s past, accompanied by voice recordings that describe her upbringing as a young Jewish woman and her mother’s influence in encouraging Ginsburg to be financially independent. Also in the narrative mix is her model marriage with her husband Martin and the heartwarming details of their life together.
Elsewhere, Mock dedicates a significant portion of the story to Shana Knizhnik and Irin Carmon, the co-writers of the New York Times bestselling book “Notorious R.B.G.: The Life and Times of Ruth Bader Ginsburg,” whose interviews feel redundant and sometimes, like unwanted departures from the Justice’s own voice. “Ruth” is much better served when Mock focuses on people whose lives Ginsberg’s work helped change for the better. Among them are Justice Goodwin Liu, a former clerk for Ginsburg and a present-day Associate Justice of the California Supreme Court; Virginia delegate Jennifer Carroll Foy, who couldn’t have attended the Virginia Military institute as a woman without Ginsburg’s gender equality work; and Lilly Ledbetter (while she lost against her employer Goodyear in a case of employment discrimination, Justice Ginsburg’s related dissent paved the way to 2009’s Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act of 2009).
All the facts and stories laid out in “Ruth” — which are often accompanied by pretty-looking but dramatically pointless illustrations and animation — substantiate the level of energy that defined the life of Ginsburg, an eloquent, unruffled and infinitely sharp idol who tirelessly worked and stayed active until her final days. If only Mock’s film was charged by a similar kind of purpose and vigor.