The Notorious Ruth Bader Ginsberg champions intelligence and equality in the documentary ‘RBG’

One of the greatest living Americans. If anyone deserves to be lionized in a feature-length hagiography, it’s The Notorious Ruth Bader Ginsberg.

In these dark times, it’s heartening to see this unapologetic celebration of one woman’s lifelong championship of American values like fairness, justice, and equality. Glimpses of her personal life prove she also lived by these values, especially in how she plowed a pioneering course through formerly male-only spaces like Harvard law school, and how she and husband Marty modeled a successful marriage of equals.

But an obvious but unspoken dark subcurrent runs through Betsy West and Julie Cohen’s documentary: Ginsberg is not getting any younger, and it’s unbearably terrifying to contemplate American life without her. She was instrumental in many of the anti-discrimination rulings that protect Americans today, against the powerful so-called “conservative” forces that expressly believe that Americans are not equal, that women should be paid less than men and excluded from male spaces, and that non-white people should not vote. The film makes the point that she was not long ago considered a moderate, but the rise of far-right forces have recast her relatively straightforward moderation as leftism.

After West and Cohen’s film rests its case, the dissenting opinion is delivered by Professor Helen Alvar√© of the Scalia Law School. Try not to puke as you sit through the staggering hypocrisy of someone associated with one of the most notorious right-wing ideologues in recent American history, voice the surface-level, rational-sounding criticism that a Supreme Court Justice should not voice personal political opinions.

In ordinary times, with ordinary politicians, I might agree that justices ought to tread lightly in the public forum. But these are not ordinary times, and Trump is not an ordinary politician. Alvar√©’s argument boils down to: liberals should not enjoy the same freedom of speech as the rich and powerful. Today, with predatory nationalists and criminals sullying the White House and dominating Congress, I counterargue: anyone who does not have open antipathy for the Trump Administration is either ignorant or somehow profiting.

In a national climate that elevates uninformed opinion over knowledge and expertise, we need this celebration of raw, burning intelligence. The serious, reserved Ginsberg is now endearingly pleased to find herself a pop-culture icon and inspiration to young people, but especially to young women. More like her, please.

four out of five stars (four for the film, five million for Ginsberg)

The plural of chad is chad in HBO’s Recount

The 2008 HBO television movie Recount dramatizes the traumatic few weeks at the close of the 2000 Presidential election. That hectic time brings back three distinct feelings for this blogger: bewilderment at the founding fathers’ purpose for the Electoral College (as everyone no doubt remembers, it was never in doubt that Al Gore won the popular vote), nausea at the Supreme Court and Bush Campaign’s abrupt circumvention of our democracy, and finally, the sudden omnipresence of my name: Chad (defined as “a piece of waste material created by punching cards or tape”). I’ve heard all the jokes, but Recount was able to teach me one new factoid: the “plural of chad is chad.”

Although a thriller involving presidential politics, its tone is nothing like that of All the President’s Men; no least, everything takes place in sunlight and no one smokes. Director Jay Roach (yes, him, of the Austin Powers movies) carries things along at a breakneck pace. This is how it probably felt to those on the inside of the Florida hurricane (involving even little a little boy from Cuba you might recall was named Elian Gonzales). But for a viewer, it feels like a 2-hour barrage of facts, figures, and dramatic recreations of key events. Perhaps unavoidably, much of the story is told through reams of history and exposition placed into the characters’ mouths.

Laura Dern in Recount
Laura Dern as Katherine Harris during her 15 minutes of fame

Like Oliver Stone’s W., this dramatization of real events provides ample opportunity for famous actors to exercise their skills as impersonators. Most notably, Laura Dern embodies Florida Secretary of State Katherine Harris in all her tacky glory. Harris is unflatteringly depicted as caught in over her head by circumstances. She is vain about her appearance, yet blind to how she is perceived. Baker orders the Republican lobbyist Mac Stipanovich (Bruce McGill) to attach himself to her, to circumvent laws that prohibit the administration from interfering in Florida state matters. It’s an easy task; using flattery, he implies Harris is in control while he’s actually feeding her directives directly from the Bush campaign.

The early part of the film concerns the fundamental difference of approach between Warren (“Chris”) Christopher (John Hurt) and James Baker (Tom Wilkinson) – both actors affecting convincing American accents. Christopher is a gentleman of the old school, obedient to propriety. Baker, on the other hand, is a ruthless shark willing to play dirty. Christopher is forced to leave the effort due to family matters, and the weight of responsibility falls upon protagonist Ron Klain (Kevin Spacey), General Counsel for the Gore Campaign.

If true, here’s something I didn’t know: one of the final nails in the coffin of the recount came from no less than Joe Lieberman. In the version of events presented by the film, Lieberman directly interfered in the matter of questionable absentee ballots filed by military service members. The Gore campaign argued that according to the Bush team’s own standards, any improperly submitted ballots shouldn’t be valid. Lieberman initially agreed with the tactic, then wimped out on national television and spoke out against his own campaign, making it seem as if his own people were the ones stooping to underhanded tactics to win.

Recount
Kevin Spacey and Denis Leary as Ron Klain and Michael Whouley

As a staunch Democrat still simmering over what happened eight years ago, Recount reads to me as very pro-Gore. But I’m curious as to what Bush supporters think of the film. Does it look fair to them? I suppose they might look at Bush Campaign National Counsel Ben Ginsberg (Bob Balaban) and Baker and see two men doing everything they can to support the candidate they believe legally won the election. But when Ginsberg is quoted sneering at Democrats being willing to cheat and steal elections, I wanted to find the real man and spit on his shoe.

Watching this film brings back all my disgust at the real villain, of course, The Supreme Court. The movie illustrates the heartbreaking catch-22: The Supreme Court paused the recount, causing most Florida counties to miss the deadline, and then saying the recount could not continue because the deadline had passed. And then to rub it in, The Court stated that this particular ruling applied to the current situation only, and could not be applied to any future scenario. As Gore Campaign strategist Michael Whouley (Denis Leary) points out for the audience, this is something The Court had never done before in history. I recall from the time that one theory was that the Court perhaps fancied were saving the nation from a brutal blow to its foundations, in the same way that Ford did by pardoning Nixon in 1974. Regardless, the whole situation still smells eight years later.

The great tragedy is that the more the Gore campaign dug into the system, the more dirt they found. For instance, they uncover irrefutable evidence that thousands of legitimate African American voters were disenfranchised in Florida, but were powerless to do anything about it except weakly hope that it wouldn’t happen again next time. Now, in 2008, when racism matters more than ever, let’s certainly hope it doesn’t.