It always amazes me how multiple movies with the same topics get made around the same time. Last May there was the documentary RBG, about Ruth Bader Ginsburg. It jumped through her life with an amazing lack of depth. Now comes On the Basis of Sex, a biopic focusing on the beginnings of her legal career. Whereas RBG was about the idea of her as a cultural icon, On the Basis of Sex is much more interested in how she started her climb to that position. It can be pretty heavy-handed in the way it makes its points, but it is generally entertaining. This is the rare case where a documentary feels less honest than the dramatization.
The story opens with Ruth starting Harvard Law School, where she is immediately faced with sexism. After she and her husband, Martin, both graduate, he has no difficulty getting a job as a lawyer. Unfortunately, no one will hire her. Eventually, Martin shows her a tax case where a man was discriminated against because of his gender. Seeing an opportunity to take up the cause she is most passionate about, Ruth gets involved in the case.
Ruth Ginsburg is a hero to liberals and On the Basis of Sex (115 minutes without the end credits) has little negative to say about her. However, it shows, instead of just tells, why some value her so highly. The screenplay (by Daniel Stiepleman, Ginsburg’s nephew) tries to take an insider’s view into what drove her. The answer seems to be a refusal to accept injustice. As a woman, she would not be treated like a second class citizen, so it became her mission to insure she could not be.
The best thing about the movie is its depiction of the relationship between Ruth and Martin. Martin is kind, supportive and funny. His main role in the story is to help his wife succeed at something that was considered to be men’s work. There is a gentle flip of gender roles as she works in their office while he cooks for her and their two children.
Far less subtle is the handling of the faculty at Harvard who become her opposition during the big case. I am sure there were many who did not think she belonged at Law School or in the legal profession because of her gender and that, by going after gender-based law, she was tinkering with a system that worked just fine. They are presented as mere symbols of the system; obstacles of ignorance for her to overcome. Some extra nuance on that side would have made for a deeper and more meaningful journey.
Regardless, that problem is made up for by the strong performances and solid characterizations by the rest of the cast. Felicity Jones is very good as Ruth Bader Ginsburg. She gets across the stubborn determination and the deep belief that she is fighting for what is right. There is no pandering in her performance. She plays her as a three-dimensional character, not a superhero. She learns from her mistakes and grows, making her climactic speech as impactful as possible. Armie Hammer is witty and charismatic as Martin. The scenes at home with them and Cailee Spaeny as their oldest daughter, add much needed depth to Ruth. Justin Theroux gives good support as her more experienced friend at the ACLU.
Director Mimi Leder had a difficult task: make an icon seem human. She largely succeeds. While she certainly does not focus on her subject’s flaws, she does try to make her more than just a crusader for social justice. Mostly though, this is the story of an underdog fighting against an oppressive system. It works better as that than it does as straight biography. Like many movies based on reality, the validity of some of its “facts” are up for debate. I am unaware how historically accurate it is, but it is pretty enjoyable to watch.
3½ out of 5
Felicity Jones as Ruth Bader Ginsburg
Armie Hammer as Martin Ginsburg
Cailee Spaeny as Jane Ginsburg
Justin Theroux as Mel Wulf
Sam Waterston as Erwin Griswold
Stephen Root as Professor Brown
Jack Reynor as Jim Bozarth
Directed by Mimi Leder
Written by Daniel Stiepleman