Two excellent recent movies are contrasting depictions of the workings of conscience. Paul Schrader’s First Reformed is the portrayal of a fictional character being slowly destroyed by the anguish of living in an unjust, possibly doomed world. Betsy West and Julie Cohen’s RBG is the biographical documentary about a woman who has offered great service to America by following faithfully the dictates of her own conscience.
First Reformed tells the story of Ernst Toller (Ethan Hawke), the pastor of a small rural church in upstate New York that is attached to a much larger megachurch. It is obvious from the start that Toller is going through a horrible dark night of the soul. His congregants can be counted on the fingers of both hands. Alone in his austere parsonage at night, he writes despairing entries in his journal (which he swears he will burn after one year) between swallows of scotch.
A former Army chaplain, Toller is tortured by the memory of his son’s combat death in Iraq and the collapse of his marriage shortly thereafter. So perhaps he is not the best clergyman to advise Michael (Philip Ettinger), the radical environmentalist husband of Mary (Amanda Seyfried), one of Toller’s parishioners. Toller’s attempts at counsel and consolation are meaningless to atheist Michael, who is convinced by the evidence of pollution and climate change that Earth is doomed. Even worse in Michael’s eyes is that Mary is pregnant; to him, it is an act of homicidal recklessness to bring a child into the world.
One day Toller receives an urgent call from Michael, begging him for a meeting in the park. Toller arrives to find Michael lying in the snow, dead from a self-inflicted shotgun wound. Helping Mary clear out Michael’s effects, Toller finds something that both horrifies and intrigues him: a fully operational suicide vest.
Toller has already concluded that the world is doomed, and Michael’s despair and death resonate deeply with him. Giving tours of the church to people who treat it mostly as a gift shop, Toller often shows off the Revolutionary War-era bullet holes in the church door, and the cellar in which escaping slaves were held when the church was a way station in the Underground Railroad. Toller’s inner turmoil, combined with his diet of scotch, is causing him constant stomach pain, and his doctors are not hopeful for his recovery. Toller comes to the decision that, if he must go, he must go in a way that makes a bold statement for justice, and he decides that the church’s upcoming 250th-anniversary celebration is just the time to do it.
The hallmark of Paul Schrader’s movies is the collision of religion and morality with the violence and cruelty of the world. First Reformed is the most fully realized film of Schrader’s career. Critics have compared it with two other films about a minister going through a dark night of the soul: Ingmar Bergman’s Winter Light and Robert Bresson’s Diary of a Country Priest. Like the Lutheran minister in Winter Light, Toller preaches to a nearly empty church and tries haplessly to comfort a suicidal man; like the Catholic priest in Bresson’s film, Toller is constantly ill and in pain, and keeps a journal in which he pours out his anguish about God’s silence. What distinguishes First Reformed from the other films is its slow, inexorable build to a radical and shocking climax. What happens
at the end is best not revealed, but it is totally in keeping with the work of the man who wrote Taxi Driver.
The cast of First Reformed is first-rate, especially Seyfried as Mary and Cedric Kyles, a/k/a Cedric the Entertainer, as Rev. Jeffers, pastor of the megachurch. But it is Hawke who dominates the film in a career-defining performance. Even in his finest mature performances, such as Boyhood and the Before Sunrise movies, Hawke never lost a certain boyish enthusiasm that was a holdover from his youth. Maudie was the first film in which that boyishness disappeared, but in First Reformed he is an aging and disillusioned man, sick in body and soul. Every day brings fresh sorrow and mortification for Toller. Rev. Jeffers condemns him and his idol Thomas Merton as pie-in-the-sky idealists, and Edward Balq (Michael Gaston), owner of the local, high-polluting energy plant and chief patron of the megachurch, mocks him as a loser and troublemaker. Not that Toller is any
saint: he is brutal to Esther (Victoria Hill), choir director at the megachurch and Toller’s ex-lover. But Hawke makes Toller completely compelling.
Though Schrader’s directorial style in First Reformed is basically severe, he enlivens it with thrilling, even flamboyant touches. He takes the idea of blending scotch with Pepto-Bismol—a sight gag in Martin Scorsese’s remake of Cape Fear—and turns it into a nightmare, the pink antacid swirling up through the brown whisky like the fires of Hell. At another point, Schrader gives Toller and Mary an out-of-body experience. Such sequences have been risible in such films as Francis Ford Coppola’s Rumble Fish, but in First Reformed Schrader makes it mesmerizing, summing up the film’s entire moral and social content.
From the extremes of First Reformed, we turn to the straightforward sanity of RBG, about a woman who quietly transformed American jurisprudence into something far more equitable and enlightened than how she first found it.
West and Cohen don’t get fancy with their filmmaking; they just point their camera at Ginsburg and shoot, mixing their interviews with archival footage and comments by constitutional scholars and Ginsburg’s family and friends. The story West and Cohen have to tell is inspiring enough without directorial flourishes or embellishments.
The story begins with Ginsburg’s birth in Brooklyn, to Russian-Jewish immigrants. From childhood Ginsburg—named Joan Ruth Bader at birth--was shy, reticent, and hardworking, drawn to a life of scholarship. She was no stranger to tragedy; her sister Marylin died of meningitis at age six, and her mother Celia—who greatly encouraged young Ruth in her studies—died just before Ruth graduated from high school.
As a Cornell undergraduate, Ginsburg met her future husband Martin, who became a top tax attorney, and she was already a wife and mother when she was accepted to Harvard Law School. She later transferred to Columbia, but despite graduating tied for first in her class, no law firm would hire her. She received a federal clerkship only because her mentor at Columbia threatened the judge. She carried a full workload while raising two children and nursing Marty through a near-fatal bout of cancer.
Later, as a law professor first at Rutgers and then at Columbia, Ginsburg became one of the nation’s foremost advocates for gender equality in and before the law. As co-director of the Women’s Rights Project of the American Civil Liberties Union, she argued six cases before the Supreme Court, winning five, including some of the most significant equal rights cases ever adjudicated. Not all of them were specifically for women; Weinberger v. Weisenfeld won for widowers the same rights as widows to collect benefits for their minor children under Social Security.
Appointed as a Supreme Court associate justice in 1993, she became the voice on the court for women’s rights and equality in general. She wrote the court’s opinion in United States v. Virginia, striking down the Virginia Military Institute’s male-only admissions policy. Her blistering dissent in Ledbetter v. Goodyear, in which a narrow interpretation of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act cheated a woman supervisor at a Goodyear plant out of equal pay with her male counterparts, led to Congressional passage of the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act.
The significance of Ginsburg’s career cannot be overestimated, yet a mere recitation of the facts cannot give you a full picture of either the woman or the film. At eighty-five, Ginsburg still works far into the night, every night; she has survived two bouts of cancer, and works out with weights every day; she killed her TV decades ago, yet cracks up at Kate McKinnon’s spoofs of her on Saturday Night Live. Her unwavering strength of purpose has made her the target of vilification from right-wing ranters, but also has enshrined her in public lore as The Notorious RBG—rapper, Ninja, superhero. Her long, devoted list of friends included the late Justice Antonin Scalia, who could not have been farther apart from her in judicial philosophy but was simpatico with her in many other ways, especially in their
shared love of opera. One of the most delightful parts of RBG shows Ginsburg making her operatic debut as the Duchess of Krakenthorp, a speaking role in Donizetti’s La Fille du Regiment.
Watching RBG will make you proud to be living in the same era as Ruth Bader Ginsburg. If Ginsburg is not a great American, there have never been any. Throughout her life she has been true to the motto she quotes in the film, from the 19th-century feminist and abolitionist Sarah Grimke: “I ask no favors for my sex. All I ask of our brethren is to take their feet off our necks.”