On the Basis of Sex January 11, 2019
he year 2018 began and ended with movies about Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg. The first was a documentary called RBG, which debuted at Sundance in January. The second was December’s“On the Basis of Sex, a standard-format biopic starring Felicity Jones as Ginsburg and Armie Hammer as her tax lawyer husband, Martin “Marty” Ginsburg. RBG is career-spanning; On the Basis of Sex tries to be a stack of
snapshots. The latter begins in 1956, when Ginsburg started studying at Harvard Law, and ends in the early 1970s, around the time Ginsburg argued her very first gender-discrimination suit in court.
On the Basis of Sex was directed by television veteran Mimi Leder and written by Ginsburg’s nephew, Daniel Stiepleman. It has been efficiently designed to equally biographize and inspire cheers. Its first two acts cover Ginsburg’s education and early attempts at beginning a law career — though her professional goals are so thoroughly thwarted by sexism that she’s eventually forced to turn to academia. The last act, in contrast, is more static, and is defined by the emergence of a case that soon helps transform the movie into a compelling courtroom drama. It’s a likable, sufficiently made biopic. Leder and Stiepleman elicit a great deal of affection for the romanticized versions of the Ginsbergs and their supporters and construct an affecting — albeit necessarily omission-heavy — storyline.
Jones and Hammer, despite having negligible chemistry, are individually good. Jones in particular convincingly captures Ginsburg’s vim and vigor. Supporting performances from Justin Theroux, as a peppy but misogynistic American Civil Liberties Union higher-up, and Kathy Bates, as a vinegary lawyer whom Ginsberg looks up to, are exceptional. Cailee Spaeny, as Ginsburg’s resolute teenage daughter, is a bright spot too, though I suspect her contributions will mostly remain underrated in comparison to her older, more decorated colleagues.
Yet like many biographical movies attempting to uncover the essence of an almost-fabled subject in the span of a feature-length film, it is not the main subject’s inner life that takes precedence in On the Basis of Sex: the narrative does. This tactic, though ensuring a streamlined story, ultimately does not really get us inside the head of its heroine. At the end of the film, the camera watches as the real Ginsburg, immaculately dressed in a blue skirt suit, walks up the Supreme Court Building’s steps, in slow motion. Clearly, we’re supposed to be looking at this person we’re pretty familiar with a little differently than we had before.
Although watching On the Basis of Sex confirms how impressive Ginsburg is, there is scarce insight that couldn’t be gained from leafing through her Wikipedia page, or, presumably, from watching the RBG documentary, in which she provides face-to-camera recollection. As alluded to by Slant’s Derek Smith, On the Basis of Sex is more akin to a superhero origin story than a character study. The movie is stirring and capable, but what you thought of Ginsburg before entering the theater will likely not change after departing it. B
This review also appeared in The Daily.