It could be reasonably argued that Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg is the most important American woman alive today. In a deeply divided political climate, she sits in a pivotal seat on the highest court in the land, hailed by liberals and condemned by conservatives. In recent years (particularly after the 2016 elections), a certain portion of the nation has elevated her to celebrity status, complete with merch and memes galore in her honor. To put an even finer point on it, On the Basis of Sex is not even the first film this year to take on the woman behind the robe as its main subject matter (the exceptionally personal documentary RBG was released in the spring).
This narrative version, directed by Mimi Leder (“The Leftovers,” “Shameless”) and written by the justice’s nephew, Daniel Stiepleman, focuses on Ginsburg’s early years as a law student, wife, mother, professor and eventually the attorney who argues a landmark equal rights case before the Supreme Court. In this way, it’s a bit of a superhero origin story; a sharp intellect and an insatiable ambition are the superpowers at play as we learn what (and who) went into shaping the associate justice we know today. Felicity Jones (Rogue One, Theory of Everything) is Ginsburg, and it’s inspired casting; Jones is slight and small, just as RBG is, yet capable of bringing a presence to any room—classroom, courtroom—where she plans to be heard. What’s more, this Brit mostly nails the justice’s Brooklyn accent, making it at least one thing that won’t be distracting us from the story at hand.
We meet Ginsburg in 1956 as she’s headed into Harvard Law School, a lone woman practically lost in a sea of men. As one might imagine, her presence in these hallowed halls isn’t warmly welcomed by all, and even less so when she begins pulling double duty, taking not only her own classes but those of her husband Martin (Armie Hammer) as well, after he’s laid up following life-threatening surgery. It’s this kind of determination and clever problem-solving that will define Ginsburg’s career in the coming decades, as she faces sexism and incredulity at every turn. As long as she has anything to say about it, nothing will keep her from learning and practicing the law as diligently as any man, all while simultaneously managing a marriage and raising a daughter, Jane (Cailee Spaeny).
Of course, it’s not always up to her. By the 1960s, when it’s her turn to make the rounds interviewing at the top-tier law firms in Manhattan, no one is interested in hiring a woman, either because they’ve never done it before (so how could they now?) or because she’ll just leave to go have children anyway (so why bother?) or (and yes, this was a reason) because it would be too distracting to the other men in the office (and what about their wives?!). That this woman kept pushing forward in the face of such blatant discrimination is, as we know now, her greatest gift to us all, as all of this laid the groundwork for a career in law that would quite literally shape the country.
With no firm willing to hire her, Ginsburg becomes a law professor with a specific focus on gender equality cases, now at the front of classrooms that have changed just as much as the tumultuous world around her. More women, more people of color, more campus protests…Ginsburg of the 1960s and 1970s is watching the cultural evolution from the front row and responds the only way she knows how: through the law. With the help of her forward-thinking students, a supportive husband and her colleagues at the ACLU (where she was director of the Women’s Rights Project), she hatches a bold plan to dismantle gender discrimination one legal case at a time. (Her ACLU colleagues include Justin Theroux as a fast-talking, chain-smoking, no-nonsense Mel Wulf).
And we’re off!
Stiepleman’s script isn’t perfect, but as a screenwriter with just this one very personal credit to his name, he accomplishes quite a lot in what’s ultimately a glossy (if crowd-pleasing) biopic. A side plot around Martin and Ruth’s daughter Jane and her coming of age in the time of Women’s Lib complements Ruth’s chosen area of practice, and serves to humanize a woman who many of us know only from stodgy portraits of the sitting Supreme Court justices. Jane rebels and acts out, and as frustrated as Ginsburg is with her, in the film version of her life at least, she’s able to see the truth in her daughter’s protestations and use it as motivation for her work.
In addition to Theroux, there’s a notable supporting cast at play as the case Ginsburg will eventually argue in front of the Supreme Court comes together. Always a pleasure to see on screen, Sam Waterston is Erwin Griswold, dean of Harvard Law School during Ginsburg’s matriculation there, and then Solicitor General of the United States when she takes on the government in her gender equality work. (This seems to be more than just a contrived cinematic coincidence, according to some crackerjack internet research.) Kathy Bates pops up as feminist activist and civil rights lawyer Dorothy Kenyon, a trailblazer so ahead of her time that she paved the way for the likes of Ginsburg. Her scenes are brief but wonderful, a welcome reminder that any film is better with Kathy Bates in it. The most curious casting choice, however, is that of Hammer as Martin Ginsburg, if only because the real Mr. Ginsburg was about half as tall as the towering Hammer. But this is Hollywood and Hammer is a dashing leading man, so why not?
Like any procedural before it, the first two acts of On the Basis of Sex all lead up to the pivotal court scene where Ginsburg, a woman who’d never actually argued a case before, steps in front of the the nine most important men in the judiciary. The details of the case and the legal strategy behind it are well known (and if not, clearly outlined in the film); suffice it to say that the stars aligned in order to create a bulletproof case poised to challenge the discriminatory nature of the nation’s tax laws. In order to best make their case, the team decides Ginsburg should split the time allotted for oral arguments with Martin (also factually accurate). If the film is an origin story, it is also an homage to their decades-long relationship, a partnership built on love, respect and equality. These final courtroom scenes are as touching in that regard as they are inspiring.
As real-life American heroes go, Ruth Bader Ginsburg is certainly a name that will go down in the history books. For a fuller understanding of the woman both on and off the bench, it’s worth seeking out RBG; by nature, the documentary is much more adept at painting a more vibrant picture of her life, her career and her lasting legacy. But in the end, it’s fitting that such an influential woman would receive the narrative film treatment as well. And as biopics go, On the Basis of Sex tells her story in an appropriately approachable, pleasant way. What it lacks in cinematic ambition, it more than makes up for with admiration for its subject.
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