The legend of Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg is blooming as she reaches the twilight years of her life. As the political climate escalates in volatility and the protests against believed injustices grow louder and larger, Ginsburg has become the figurehead for a youth movement of feminists and liberals, a deified icon that symbolizes everything they are fighting for. Your own personal politics aside, it’s hard to deny the monumental role Ginsburg has played in tearing down and rebuilding gender norms in America, using the court systems as her own society-shifting battlefield.
In my opinion, the recent respect for Justice Ginsburg is well-deserved, as Hollywood’s cameras turn their gaze towards her decades of valuable public service. The very good documentary RBG takes us step-by-step through the considerable amount of obstacles she had to hurdle in her esteemed career, careful to also show the mistakes she’s made along the way. On the Basis of Sex is more fawning and reverent towards Ginsburg, chronicling the first (and most crucial) 13 years of her law career. Casting the very talented Felicity Jones as the courtroom celebrity, and surrounding her with an esteemed supporting cast, On the Basis of Sex is an inspired and entertaining recreation of those key events in Ginsburg’s life, albeit a bit plain in its presentation.
I will be docking On the Basis of Sex points throughout the review for its workmanlike, if unremarkable, storytelling and visual style. However, director Mimi Leder’s opening shot is among the best that 2018 had to offer. We meet Ruth in 1956, walking towards her Harvard Law school classroom on the first day of her first year. She walks with authority, but is surrounded exclusively by young men, her blue dress standing out in a sea of suits and ties, swarming like sharks. Harvard is an intimidating atmosphere for Ruth and her eight fellow female classmates, with subtle sexism facing them everywhere they go, particularly from Dean Griswold (Sam Waterston). Ginsburg has the support and love of her husband, second year student Martin (Armie Hammer), but a discriminating workforce makes it increasingly difficult for her to get a job that puts her true talents to use.
By design, On the Basis of Sex is a very manipulative movie, a fangirling tribute to one of history’s important icons. Leder wants you to feel fury when doors are closed on Ruth just because of her gender, and she also wants you to applaud when she sticks it to the sexist society pushing her down. It’s nonetheless effective, particularly as Ruth finds that key case she’s been looking for in 1970, involving a man who was denied a tax deduction for nursing care needed for his sick mother. Seeing this as an opening to challenge gender standards by arguing the denial is discriminatory against the traditional roles of men, Ruth and Mel eventually find backing from the ACLU and its legal director, the gruff and stubborn Mel Wulf (Justin Theroux, effectively playing against comedic type).
In true familiar biopic fashion, their legal opposition could not be more cartoonishly sexist and two-dimensional. Waterston’s Griswold is almost always shot in dark shadows and oblique, uncomfortable angles, reinforcing the overt piggish dialogue he’s forced to read. Not faring much better are Professor Brown (Stephen Root) and James Bozarth (Jack Reynor), lawyers set to put the progression of women to rest. They’re the despicable manifestations of the portion of society stuck in the times, offset by a youth movement ready to protest and take to the streets (including Ruth’s daughter Jane). The villains serve their purpose, but it comes at the expense of any kind of interesting character writing.
A movie like On the Basis of Sex is allowed to be manipulative as long as it makes you feel the emotional highs in its rousing courtroom speeches and filibustering monologues. Leder makes sure that the moments that really need to land hit with monumental importance and impact, particularly in the final 20-30 minutes. You really can feel the weight of the final case, and what it would mean if Ruth and Martin were to fail. We know the outcome, but given the slippery slope we’ve seen in contemporary times that can come if we start losing the fight for progressivism, we’re still holding our breath.
Jones’ tremendous performance adds to that desperation and brevity. For a movie that often finds itself treating Ginsburg like a legal god, Jones remarkably makes her feel fully developed. She really leans into how her personal shortcomings as an inexperienced litigator and public speaker, and how those weaknesses threaten to negate her natural talents and jeopardize her entire life’s work. Hammer’s character, serving as a more charismatic yin to Ruth’s blunt and determined yang, is a bit bland, but his natural screen presence and chemistry with Jones provides more than enough enjoyment.
On the Basis of Sex certainly wants you thinking just as much about 2019 as you are about 1970. It’s a message movie from start to finish, a reminder of the past’s triumphs and a call to action to keep Ruth’s mission moving in that direction. Those impassioned good intentions limit how special and unique as a film On the Basis of Sex can be, but as a crowd pleasing history lesson about one of the most important women of the last two centuries, I certainly rule in favor of a watch.