In a way it’s too bad the Ruth Bader Ginsburg doc RBG opened earlier this year, interfering with the ability of On the Basis of Sex to surprise audiences with the Supreme Court Justice’s remarkable stranger-than-fiction biography.
But that personal story is certainly worth repeating, as it is in the conventional and sometimes inspirational On the Basis of Sex, focused on Ginsburg’s law school days and early legal career. Ginsburg (Felicity Jones) was one of just nine women in the Harvard Law School class of 1956, an uphill climb made more arduous when husband Marty (Armie Hammer) was stricken with cancer. Ruth does her work, attends class for Marty and compiles notes, types up his assignments as he dictates them, all the while making sure their baby (!) is cared for.
Director Mimi Leder speeds through this section in order to get to the movie’s real goal — Ginsburg’s groundbreaking legal arguments regarding gender discrimination in the 1970s — but loops back to her amazing Harvard years in a clever way at the movie’s midpoint.
By then, On the Basis of Sex has zeroed in on the tax case, Moritz v. the IRS, that Ginsburg would use to make some of her most ingenious arguments against laws that discriminate based on gender (Charles Moritz was a single man denied a $296 tax deduction because he was a male caregiver looking after his mother, and the deduction was only available to women and widowers).
We see Ginsburg making a personal visit to Moritz (Chris Mulkey), and we also see that he is initially put off by the prospect of being a legal guinea pig for big-shot lawyers. It is here that Ginsburg, a keen legal mind not known for her personal touch — the movie notes that most of the family’s empathetic “mothering” is done by Marty — stops being a lawyer for a second or two and indicates that she knows what it’s like to care for a sick family member.
She’s hired, and so begins the tough work of preparing for the case. First persuading the overburdened ACLU, led by legal director Mel Wulf (Justin Theroux, to join the fight, then taking some pretty tough criticism from folks in her own corner during moot court preparation.
Ginsburg is a law school professor without a lot of time arguing in court, and the movie builds suspense around her untested ability to master courtroom theatrics sometimes necessary to sway judges. Ginsburg is also shown to be moved by the youthful political passions of her own daughter, and her students at Rutgers University — much as young people today are inspired by Ginsburg’s spirited Supreme Court opinions.
But the movie is also an argument for Ginsburg’s grind-it-out incrementalism — one argument, one case, one win at a time, until larger strategic goals are attained. You start with a trivial case about tax law, you end up kicking out the pillars that support gender discrimination.
Real change takes time, and who would know that better than Basis director Leder. also a pioneer. When she made The Peacemaker for Hollywood in 1997, she was one of the first women in Hollywood to make big-budget commercial action movie at a time when that could not have been easy. The mixture of patience and deferred fury we see from Ginsburg here is something she surely knows first hand.
Directed by Mimi Leder. With Felicity Jones, Armie Hammer, Justin Theroux, Chris Mulkey and Sam Waterston. Distributed by Focus Features.
Running time: 2 Hours
Parents guide: PG-13 (language)