Review: ‘On the Basis of Sex’ is a Well-Made Biopic That Paints Ruth Bader Ginsburg as More of a Superhero Than a Person
On the Basis of Sex is a respectable movie about a respectable person. Felicity Jones makes a determined Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Armie Hammer is both tall and hot as her husband Marty, Justin Theroux is there. The script from Daniel Stiepleman, Ginsburg’s nephew, is written with a wink and a nod toward our current times, and the direction from Mimi Leder is efficient enough. It’s all fine? It’s not particularly nuanced, but it’s fine.
On the Basis of Sex is in the mold of other biopics like Marshall and dramas like The Post in that the central issue being considered is one for which history already has a general consensus. We already know RBG is an exceptionally intelligent, phenomenally astounding legal mind who takes very little bullshit because we’ve seen that during her 25 years on the Supreme Court. (And we’re obviously happy to hear that she’s on the mend after her third bout with cancer.) We knew The Post published the Pentagon Papers, we knew Thurgood Marshall was a brilliant lawyer, and so the experience of watching those films had a certain level of emotional involvement and a certain level of rational distance. On the Basis of Sex feels the same way, especially if you’ve seen the 2018 documentary RBG, which went deeper into Ginsburg’s own layers of personality and beliefs and her incomparable effect on American law than this film does.
The film begins in 1956, when Ginsburg is a first-year student at Harvard Law School, one of only nine women in her cohort, facing a sea of white men in blue or black suits, scoffing at her in class, interrupting her answers, and generally being jackasses. Their opinions are mostly shared by the Harvard faculty, including Dean Erwin Griswold (Sam Waterston, being the anti-Jack McCoy here), who invites the female students to his home for a welcome dinner and then rates their answers when he forces them to explain why they’re attending Harvard. He’s terrible, but he’s just one of countless men who don’t take Ginsburg seriously.
But the constant in Ruth’s life is her husband Marty (Hammer), who treats her with reverence and adoration (seriously, we all deserve to be loved like how Hammer looks at Jones during this film; it was very sexually appealing for me). He knows how brilliant she is, and how selfless, and together they get through law school—but he nails a job in tax law immediately after graduation, while Ruth, top of her class, interviews at more than a dozen places and never gets an offer. By 1970, Ruth is an established professor at Rutgers Law, teaching about sex and the law, while Marty is on track to be the youngest partner at his firm. There’s still love there, but some resentment from Ruth, too, who never got the opportunity to practice law before teaching it.
That changes when Marty reads a case that makes him think of Ruth: a man is being denied tax benefits because of a law that was written to specifically benefit women. As Ruth knows from her own life, this IRS requirement is atypical—dozens more laws are written to exclude women, not men—but if she and Marty can prove with this case that sex-based discrimination is unconstitutional, they can use that finding to challenge laws that benefit men over women, too.
What follows is Ruth and Marty’s work on the case, their contentious partnership with the ACLU and its director Mel Wulf (Theroux), and their relationship with their 15-year-old daughter, who namedrops Gloria Steinem, cuts school to march in the streets, and is honestly kind of a jerk to her mother. And so Ginsburg doesn’t have to prove herself to just the male lawyers facing off against her from the Department of Justice, but also to her angry daughter and even Wulf, who doubts that females are truly discriminated against and would prefer to be working on issues of racial-based discrimination. (“I’d rather be a woman in this country than black or a socialist,” Wulf says, but I must note that this movie mostly ignores intersectional feminism. There are black female students in Ginsburg’s classes, but overarchingly, the film’s treatment of women vs. men doesn’t further address issues of race or class.)
Leder and Stiepleman are direct in their Ginsburg-as-trailblazer treatment, and to be fair, some of it is certainly historically accurate and thematically effective, like how often she is presented as the only woman in a room, the figure refusing to just be another wife, or the teacher leading her students toward insightful analysis of the law. Jones handles that all well, but the movie goes hard on her inexperience in the courtroom so that her later brilliance while representing her client in Moritz v. Commissioner of Internal Revenue has greater impact. It’s a narrative shortcut that leaves us a little shortchanged regarding Ginsburg’s decision-making process, and the film’s focus on that lesser-known case also means that we don’t see Ginsburg continue to hone her argument, becoming more and more prepared to appear before the U.S. Supreme Court. Again, like Marshall, the movie leaves all that stuff for a couple of paragraphs of explanation before the credits.
But Jones is mostly solid, and she has solid chemistry with Hammer that really sells Ruth’s and Marty’s partnership in both law and in life. An early scene where he helps unzip her dress and the two of them barter back and forth before falling into bed is tender and familiar, and later in the film, when Marty pulls upon his court experience to gently provide advice to Ruth, Hammer nails a helpful, not patronizing, tone. The scenes of him cooking dinner (he flambés!) when she gets home from work, coupled with the two of them working on their case together on opposite sides of the dining room table, gives the movie the human touch it needs to portray the equality the Ginsburgs were fighting for.
Plus, I’m sorry, but I feel the need to say this again: Armie Hammer is very attractive in this movie as the Most Perfect Husband. Look at how tall he is! And that face! And how it looks in aviators!
… Ahem. Anyway! On the Basis of Sex doesn’t take any risks during its presentation of Ginsburg’s early career and its exploration of her upward battle against gender-based discrimination, but as biopics go, it’s also not as blatantly revisionist as Woman Walks Ahead or as infuriating as Green Book, nor it is as lush as Colette or as layered as Can You Ever Forgive Me? or as meticulous as First Man. On the Basis of Sex is no RBG, but it’s fine enough, an additional component of our continued cultural fascination with Ginburg’s identity and legacy that values her more as a hero than as a person.
Image sources (in order of posting): Focus Features, Focus Features, Focus Features, Focus Features, Focus Features, Focus Features
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