I saw a couple of absolutely terrific documentaries over the weekend back-to-back at the Writers Guild, though haven't had a chance to write about them until now because other topics got in the way.
The first was RBG about Ruth Bader Ginsburg, and it was wonderful. Very well done, dramatic, often funny and deeply romantic (yes, really) with a surprising amount of archival footage or audio on her. And it's helped by her overwhelming personality and spirit, which is odd given how quiet she is. The story of her life and causes she fought, most-especially at a time when she was going heavily against the current, is fascinating. But what also leaps out is the relationship with her husband, Martin Ginsburg, who almost steals the movie. And it's almost stolen, too, by one of the mere talking heads, Arthur R. Miller, a classmate of hers and law professor at NYU who grace, elegance and admiration of her shines through every time he appears. (That's him at the 1:41 mark.) But you can't steal Justice Ginsburg's own documentary from herself. And one of the treats of the film is when this quiet, little lady sits down for the cameras to watch for the first time video of when Kate McKinnon impersonated her on Saturday Night Live. Box office figures have nothing to do with quality. But for a documentary, it speaks volumes that RBG -- in only six weeks thus far -- has made over $9 million. If a documentary makes $3 million for its entire run, it did really well. And that shows through loudly in sequences when she speaks to colleges and high schools and among all the rapt attention, you see adoring faces on so many of the young women and girls. Much as I liked the second film below, and I did, immensely, I think RBG stood out even more for me. Here's the trailer -- it does the film justice, though the documentary soars far further.
The other documentary was Won't You Be My Neighbor? about Fred Rogers. I was never a particular fan of the show -- by the time it aired I was a few years past its target audience, so it not only didn't catch my attention, but at that age you look at such things as being for "little kids." And I've never really been taken by Misterogers' Neighborhood. But I did admire his work and what he tackled, and the profound decency with which he did it. And I never doubted his sincerity for an instant -- that was because way back when I was in college, my roommate (who was from Pittsburgh, where the TV show was done) had worked on the show as an intern and only had the nicest things to say about Fred Rogers, and how everything you saw on the TV program was really him. But despite not being someone who watched the show, I loved the documentary. It's done very thoughtfully and builds with great emotion and charm. And it's helped by having a huge amount of archival footage, and it uses it all very impactfully to make its point, most especially the behind-the-scenes material. And the introspection of Fred Rogers, wondering about the affect of the show and how to deal with that adds depth.
I only had one disappointment -- in one section, they have very touching footage of Fred Rogers with someone on his show. And from videos I've searched over time, I knew there was a follow-up video to this that just put it in even greater, more meaningful, glorious perspective...and as the audience reacted to the initial video, I kept thinking, "Oh, wait until they see the follow-up...!!" But they didn't use it. And it really bothered me, because it's the exclamation point that pays it all off so unexpectedly. And when the documentary ended, as terrific as I thought it was, I was a touch let down that that great moment was left out. And then...during the end credits -- they show it!!! And, you bet, there was a joyous gasp of appreciation from the audience. (It was only a few seconds, of a much longer, even richer video, but still...they got it in, and dramatically.) So, the point here is: don't leave before the end credits. Here's the trailer. It presents the film well, though relies on talking heads more than the film does, at the expense of the wonderful footage, so while you get the story, it doesn't give as much a sense of how the documentary is done, as what it's about.
Robert J. Elisberg is a political commentator, screenwriter, novelist, tech writer and also some other things that I just tend to keep forgetting.
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