Film Review: On the Basis of Sex
“Do you want mom to stop being smart?”
Jane Ginsburg sits in her room, blasting tunes by The Monkees like a modern teen may blast Panic! at the Disco. She’s not doing so to defy her parents’ wishes, but so they cannot hear her weep. She cries because her mom, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, has proven her wrong. “She always has to prove how smart she is,” Jane gripes to her father, Marty, who follows up by asking plainly, “do you want mom to stop being smart?” He asks so with a smirk, perhaps to appease to his frustrated daughter, but more likely because he finds such a thought to be simply illogical.
That’s because it is. For Ruth Bader Ginsburg, the subject of Mimi Leder’s biopic on the trailblazing Supreme Court Justice, On the Basis of Sex, her smarts were once her lone advantage; and even they, sometimes at least, could be considered a disadvantage. Not as a cause of a lack of intelligence, but because she’s a woman. A woman who, in a room of men with inferior smarts and complexes, still faces the chuckles and sneers from those men after delivering a seamless summary of a case in her Harvard law class. It’s difficult to comprehend how a woman like Ginsburg, who is played wonderfully by Felicity Jones in this film, was ever deemed inferior. And yet she was, purely on the basis of sex.
The film’s title is a constant reminder of where this country once was and is still in very few realms. Its release date simultaneously makes loads of sense and minimal sense. Amidst the most turbulent political climate in history, why release a film that almost acts as a fantastical account of the events in which Ginsburg transformed the makeup of gender discrimination law? Or, is this the perfect time? Does this allow for young women and men to look upon the triumphs of one of our country’s most dominant political forces and maybe, just maybe, inspire them to re-ignite an optimistic age?
The film, rather than encapsulating the entirety of the Notorious RBG’s societal victories and political successes like the summer documentary, RBG, which centers in on specific aspects of a historic life. For one, it shines an appropriate light on her marriage to Marty (an always welcome, yet painfully underutilized Armie Hammer), displaying how their love and hand-in-hand resilience won out as her life remained clouded with oppression and unjust doubt. The primary focus, though, is on her landmark case that defied discrimination laws and combatted the age-old belief that a woman could never succeed at doing a man’s job. Once she begins planning and practicing for the aforementioned case — one where Charles Moritz (Chris Mulkey) has been denied a tax benefit that is typically given to women caring for incapable family members — the film evolves from a story of Ginsburg specifically into a story of society and the shortcomings with which it was riddled with.
Written by Ginsburg’s nephew, Daniel Stiepleman, the film is delivered with a remarkable affection and an unparalleled respect. In some biopics, this could cause them to become wholly Disneyfied; becoming far too generous and, on occasion, less truthful. Leder’s film suffers from no such shortcomings, as the real RBG has stated that the film’s lone inaccurate element is that it portrays her as briefly speechless when she first addresses the court. It’s far from a screenwriting master class — ahead of her landmark court case, Marty Ginsburg looks his wife in the eye and nauseatingly utters, “You’re ready for this. You’ve been ready for this your whole life. So go in there, and let the judges see the Ruth Bader Ginsburg I know.” It’s inspiring in a far from subtle format, delivering on the desire for more of RBG and acting as an uplifting tale in the ever-existent fight for equality.
Felicity Jones is as fierce and as brisk as one may imagine the real Ginsburg to be. When facing the court, a judge states that “the word ‘woman’ does not appear once in the Constitution.” With a smirk, and with an incredible, justified confidence, Ginsburg replies, “Nor does the word ‘freedom,’ your honor.” The judge nods, as if to say, “touché.” For the entirety of the film, Jones upholds such ferocity and passion, doing a profound bit of justice to the Justice herself. Her task with this part is no cakewalk, as she has to survive the mandate that comes with a script enshrouded with the clichés of an uplifting biopic. She does, delivering with class and coherence.
What the film does is become a string of moments where Ruth Bader Ginsburg proved everyone wrong. Mel Wulf, the legal director of the A.C.L.U. played by Justin Theroux, repeatedly berates Ruth, hoping to mimic the treatment she’ll receive in the courtroom. He says “You will lose, Ruth. And when you do, you will set the women’s movement back 10 years.” Ginsburg would walk out of that courtroom having changed minds and history, and enlightening a group of primarily elder, white males unto a new set of political ideals, some of which they had been ignoring for decades. The film’s first act largely focuses on some of her shortcomings, particularly the stretch of her life where 13 law firms turned her down, most often because of her gender. She would then lead and win the case that began the effort to shatter the gender barrier. She was told time and again that she would never succeed. In 1993, she was confirmed as the second-ever female Supreme Court justice by a vote of 96-3.
Unfortunately, it’s with such a focus that the film fails. IndieWire’s Eric Kohn wrote “Ginsburg’s resilience has no real historical parallel. She’s held on to her seat through three presidencies and continues to cling on during this terrifying fourth entry, enduring countless health scares (including a very recent one). On the Basis of Sex illustrates the roots of that resilience.” It does, but that’s all. It also, as mentioned, provides the RBG faithful another entry in a budding media library. This entry, more a tale of resilience than anything else, is far from great cinema. On the Basis of Sex feels like a precursor to RBG, the summer documentary that was eventually nominated for an Oscar, which is an attempt that is rather hapless. It’s as inspiring as it is cliché, and as hokey as the film is long.
It left me wanting more. That is perhaps a purely personal vendetta, as the filmmakers never intended to provide more than the plot unveiled. The roots of her resilience are on full display, but, as inspired as I was, it just did too much. As the film closes, a shot of Felicity Jones walking up the steps of the Supreme Court morphs into the real, in the flesh RBG. This is Mimi Leder’s best filmmaking decision, albeit occurring inside the film’s final minute. Kohn continued, saying “On the Basis of Sex makes it clear that no fabricated drama can muster the raw power of watching the real deal in action.” I happily echo such a sentiment. Give us the real thing as we leave, reminding us of who she is and how incredibly important her triumphs are, not the two-hour feature filled with a swelling score and inauthentic dialogue. •