RBG biopic gets mixed re­ac­tion, zeit­geist gives it a boost

‘They Shall Not Grow Old’ set for US re­lease in De­cem­ber

Arab Times - - FEATURES -

ABy Kristopher Tap­ley

fter see­ing Mimi Leder’s “On the Ba­sis of Sex”, cen­tered on Supreme Court jus­tice Ruth Bader Gins­burg, at a screen­ing last week, two things be­came ap­par­ent: the RBG drama is a crowd pleaser, and crit­i­cal minds will ob­ject to its ba­sic pre­sen­ta­tion.

Judg­ing by re­ac­tions to last night’s AFI Fest open­ing night world pre­miere, the fis­sure is start­ing to show. “Ruth, I’m sorry, you de­serve bet­ter,” one viewer tweeted. “The quin­tes­sen­tial movie for the #MeToo era,” an­other chimed in. Mean­while, both sides agree that ac­tress Felic­ity Jones was the wrong cast­ing de­ci­sion to play a young Gins­burg, and that she strug­gles with a New York ac­cent that ebbs and flows through­out.

My take is that the per­for­mance per­fectly em­bod­ies the spirit of the char­ac­ter, re­gard­less of the de­tails, and that the film it­self, al­though aes­thet­i­cally di­aled down, is by no means a cookie-cut­ter biopic. Af­ter all, we don’t go from cra­dle to cracked ribs here. Screen­writer Daniel Stieple­man, a nephew of Gins­burg’s, chose a sin­gu­lar frame of ref­er­ence for telling this story: Den­ver res­i­dent Charles Moritz’s 1970 pe­ti­tion to the In­ter­nal Rev­enue Ser­vice seek­ing de­duc­tions for ex­penses paid as care­taker of his ag­ing mother. At the time, the law ruled such pro­tec­tions were only af­forded to women, con­form­ing to a faux “nat­u­ral or­der.” It was a sem­i­nal case for Gins­burg, who took it on with her hus­band Martin along­side the Amer­i­can Civil Lib­er­ties Union, and it makes a sound mi­cro­cosm for the many ideas one would ex­pect to be dis­cussed in a movie cen­tered on her.

Within that, sure, it’s for­mu­laic. It hits fa­mil­iar beats. Though there are fun in­ver­sions, like Ar­mie Ham­mer in the role of Martin, send­ing the “sup­port­ing spouse” trope in an­other di­rec­tion, or in the con­tra­dic­tions in­her­ent in the Moritz case. And there are fair crit­i­cisms to of­fer. “Though Jones and Ham­mer share a charm­ing on-screen chem­istry, the cast­ing of the two stars di­min­ishes at least one di­men­sion of the Gins­burgs’ life­long strug­gle for civil rights, pre­sent­ing them as generic char­ac­ters straight out of the Sears cat­a­log or a Dou­glas Sirk movie, rather than mem­bers of a re­li­gious mi­nor­ity who would have had to con­tend with anti-Semitism at work and school in the 1950s and ‘60s,” wrote Va­ri­ety chief film critic Pe­ter De­bruge in his re­view.

Nav­i­gat­ing

But on the whole, the film works, and it cer­tainly suf­fers no less than some­thing like “Green Book” – which has been crit­i­cally ac­claimed – for nav­i­gat­ing so safely through so­cio-po­lit­i­cal ter­rain. (Both films were fi­nanced by Par­tic­i­pant Me­dia.) It also ob­vi­ously ar­rives at an in­ter­est­ing his­tor­i­cal mo­ment, when the rule of law feels threat­ened on a daily ba­sis and the vi­tal im­por­tance of the United States Supreme Court is more ap­par­ent than ever. And of course, Gins­burg her­self was hos­pi­tal­ized early yes­ter­day morn­ing with three frac­tured ribs, send­ing a col­lec­tive gasp through­out lib­eral Amer­ica as the fear of a third SCOTUS ap­point­ment by the cur­rent pres­i­den­tial ad­min­is­tra­tion re­mains a shared night­mare.

All of that could help push the film through the awards sea­son de­spite crit­i­cal knocks. Jones is a con­tender in a lead ac­tress race that feels par­tic­u­larly fluid out­side the top two or three spots (more on that in next week’s col­umn), and Ham­mer is a sup­port­ing ac­tor pos­si­bil­ity as well. Pop star Ke­sha’s orig­i­nal song from the film, “Here Comes the Change”, will also be in the mix.

LOS AN­GE­LES:

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Fathom Events has part­nered with Warner Bros Pic­tures to bring Pe­ter Jack­son’s World War I doc­u­men­tary “They Shall Not Grow Old” to US the­aters on Dec 17 and Dec 27, Va­ri­ety has learned ex­clu­sively. Tick­ets go on sale on Nov 16. Jeff Gold­stein, pres­i­dent of do­mes­tic dis­tri­bu­tion for Warner Bros Pic­tures said, “With this be­ing the 100th an­niver­sary of Ar­mistice Day, I can’t imag­ine a more ap­pro­pri­ate time to honor the courage of the sol­diers who fought in WWI – what was then ‘the war to end all wars’ – many of whom made the ul­ti­mate sac­ri­fice. Pe­ter has made his­tory come alive through the medium of film, and we are so pleased to be a part of bring­ing his vi­sion to to­day’s au­di­ences.” (RTRS)

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