No film could ever hope to fill the outsized legal and cultural shoes of the Notorious RBG, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, but On the Basis of Sex makes a game effort. Far from a biopic of her esteemed career as the second woman ever appointed a Supreme Court justice, the film instead spotlights one of her earliest defining cases on the matter of equal rights. The reason for choosing this particular case is clear as it lays the foundation for the groundbreaking work she would commit her life to; but as an entryway into who Ginsburg is outside of the courtroom, the film never approaches the bench.
Directed with episodic efficiency by Mimi Leder, the Deep Impact director who has largely worked in TV of late, On the Basis of Sex spans years in chronicling the path to Ginsburg’s (played by Felicity Jones) first landmark case in front of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 10th Circuit. But her story begins in 1956 as one of only nine women enrolled at Harvard Law School, depicted pointedly by Ginsburg in her bright blue outfit practically swimming against a sea of black-suited male students. The misogynistic attitude of the era proves a greater challenge than anything in one of her textbooks, as the school’s dean (Sam Waterston) never fails to single out Ginsburg and the other female students, most grotesquely at a class dinner where he makes them each explain what makes them special enough to be enrolled with Harvard men.
In a refreshing twist from the biopic norm, Ginsburg’s home life where she is a wife and mother proves remarkably stable. She has the ideal husband in prominent tax lawyer Martin Ginsburg (Armie Hammer), who proves supportive in just about every possible way. Jones has played the supportive spouse role often enough that it’s a welcome change to see her as the one driving the narrative, while Hammer is a charmer in a role that is definitely meant to enhance the lead’s likability. Just as in reality, Martin is the affable one while she is the scholarly, reserved one. The script by Daniel Stiepleman, a nephew of Ginsburg’s, puts its focus squarely on the law while checking the boxes of key moments in her career. So we see her being forced to become a professor when no firm would risk hiring a woman; we see Martin diagnosed with an illness that sets everything back for them both as she juggles work, carrying for their child, and her husband’s health.
Throughout all of this, there is one inescapable fact. Ginsburg is smarter and more capable than any of her male counterparts, but the patriarchal society of the time won’t let her show it. So the movie skips ahead to 1970 where the feminist movement has just begun to open more doors, and that’s when Ginsburg is introduced to a discrimination case that will prove a benchmark even to this day. It all serves to show the uphill climb someone as extraordinary as Ruth Bader Ginsburg had to make just to get her foot in the door. She literally had to start her legal career on a case she knew would change U.S. law forever, it was the only way. So you can imagine what those who didn’t have what she had were forced to endure.
While you can’t help but think of all the women who perhaps never got their chance at greatness just because they were born at the wrong time, what the film does well is show the influence of Ginsburg and the women who inspired her. Cailee Spaeny, most recently seen in both Pacific Rim Uprising and Bad Times at the El Royale, plays Ginsburg’s activist daughter who feels her mother could be doing more than teaching a bunch of students. And I wish we could’ve seen more of Kathy Bates’ spark as Dorothy Kenyon, a pioneering lawyer and activist. She and Justin Theroux as the passionate ACLU lawyer Mel Wulf give this buttoned-up biopic the punch in the arm it needs.
Jones has the difficult challenge of playing someone who is not only still very much alive (despite a bunch of health scares recently), but is more in the news than ever. She does a good job of showcasing Ginsburg’s strength to handle multiple burdens at once, but also the wit that put many a man in his place. But On the Basis of Sex only gives us a surface level view of Ginsburg,and a cursory account of her accomplishments. As a companion piece to the illuminating documentary RBG it will suffice, but you can’t help wanting it to be as remarkable as its subject.