Five months after the release of Ruth Bader Ginsburg documentary “RBG” — whose runaway success, at a staggering $14.3 million, all but confirms its subject’s unlikely rock-star status — and directly on the heels of justice Brett Kavanaugh’s contentious appointment to the Supreme Court comes “On the Basis of Sex,” a rousing origin story for the gender-equality pioneer many liberals hope will live forever (which world premiered as the AFI Fest opener the same day she fractured several ribs). Like last year’s “Marshall,” the engaging and well-acted, if not entirely well-cast, biopic humanizes a civil rights crusader who has since become an icon and a role model, focusing on the uphill battle of her early career.
Directed by TV producer-director Mimi Leder (returning to the big screen, where she helmed such blockbusters as “The Peacemaker” and “Deep Impact”), “On the Basis of Sex” is certainly the higher-profile of 2018’s two Ginsburg projects. It’s also one of the very few PG-13-rated movies ever put before the MPAA to feature the word “Sex” in the title, which is sure to gather at least a few extra eyeballs along the way (boy, will they be surprised). Although with American political engagement still blazing following a heated midterm election season, the film should have no trouble attracting an audience on the basis of its many other merits.
One place where things have always been equal is in the Ginsburgs’ home, which is the very domain where Leder and screenwriter Daniel Stiepleman (whose family connection, as RBG’s real-life nephew, gives him a uniquely intimate perspective on his subject) choose to focus, elaborating on what the public already knows about Ruth (Felicity Jones) and her husband Marty (Armie Hammer). Understandably adoring, Stiepleman’s script illustrates the special bond between his aunt and uncle, building up to the one case the two lawyers argued together: In Charles E. Moritz v. Commissioner of Internal Revenue, the couple shrewdly demonstrated that sex discrimination flows in both directions, arguing that a man who had quit his job to take care of his ailing mother ought to qualify for the “caregiver” exemption the IRS had expressly intended only for women.
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Though Jones and Hammer share a charming on-screen chemistry, the casting of the two stars diminishes at least one dimension of the Ginsburgs’ lifelong struggle for civil rights, presenting them as generic characters straight out of the Sears catalog or a Douglas Sirk movie, rather than members of a religious minority who would have had to contend with anti-Semitism at work and school in the 1950s and ’60s. The filmmakers should have realized that Ruth Bader Ginsburg isn’t just a role model to women but a hero to the New York Jewish community as well, and they have been rightly criticized for downplaying that aspect of her identity, choosing a glamorous English actress who, while petite and powerful like Ruth, otherwise looks and sounds so little like the woman she’s playing. That’s not to say that Jones, who ably juggles the character’s youthful tug-of-war between determination and self-doubt, doesn’t give a fine performance; it’s just that there’s a difference between successfully erasing a British accent and assuming a Brooklyn one.
Such choices are early clues to the intensely hagiographic tone of a film that begins and ends with scenes of Ruth climbing steps to the sound of Mychael Danna’s change-is-coming score. At first, it’s the stairs to Harvard Law School, where she was one of just nine women admitted in 1956 (Marty was in the class ahead of her), and where dean Erwin Griswold (“Law & Order” vet Sam Waterston) humiliated each of those ladies over dinner by asking why she was “occupying a place that could have gone to a man.” She is treated no better in class by Prof. Brown (Stephen Root), which makes it all the more satisfying in the final act to see these two chauvinists seated with opposing counsel when the Ginsburgs finally head to court (Chris Mulkey plays their client Moritz).
Years before that can happen, however, Marty is diagnosed with testicular cancer, forcing Ruth to work doubly hard to keep up with both of their classes and raise their daughter while he undergoes radiation treatment. Though Marty survives, the family decides to move to New York, where Ruth finishes her law degree at Columbia (another knock against the sexist prigs at Harvard), then struggles to find work as an attorney, eventually landing a teaching job at Rutgers. In these early scenes, one can imagine Leder channeling obstacles she also had to face as a female director, as in a job interview that seems to be going well until the male employer’s eyes drift from her face to her neckline.
Like the Meryl Streep portions of last year’s “The Post,” the depiction of the various ways, both overt and underhanded, that the system has conspired to undermine a woman’s convictions over the past half-century resonates especially strong at this moment. Leder, like Ruth’s daughter, Jane (played by Cailee Spaeny), belongs to an independent-minded generation that grew up believing what Ginsburg was fighting for. The realization of that progress not only emboldened Ruth but suggests how much today’s teens take for granted, and explains why audiences may be compelled to applaud each time she puts the Man in his place.
In a sense, what makes Ginsburg impressive is not necessarily all the things she was the first to do but the sum total of her life’s work, fighting case after case in which she advocated for equal rights regardless of gender, and in doing so, chipped away at institutionalized sexism in America. “On the Basis of Sex” tells the story of the first such lawsuit in Ginsburg’s career, contrasting the seriousness of Jones’ performance with such colorful side characters as ACLU legal director Mel Wulf (a theatrical Justin Theroux), who would later suggest her for the Supreme Court, and lawyer-activist Dorothy Kenyon (Kathy Bates, whose presence alone makes the tiny role significant).
Ironically, it was Ruth’s adversaries in the Moritz case who, hoping to stress the dangerous precedent that might be set by overturning the tax law, provided her with a list of all the sexist statutes she would dedicate her career to challenging. Though the movie wraps well before she gets to those other cases, it sticks around long enough for Ruth to find her calling and her self-confidence in the courtroom. For those of us with strong women in our own lives, the effect is like sitting down at the knee of a grandmother or a great-aunt and hearing about her struggle to find her place before women were encouraged to work or study. For those not blessed with such courageous figures, Ginsburg’s story will be especially inspirational, making it relatively easy to forgive a few manipulative and melodramatic touches in the telling.
No longer the most notorious Supreme Court justice (with Kavanaugh’s appointment), Ginsburg may be a real American hero, but because her accomplishments are balanced by such humbleness, she will never be as dynamic a character as Erin Brockovich or as charismatic as Elle Woods. Then again, an RBG biopic shouldn’t be about sizzle and showpersonship, but hard work and determination in the face of rampant, seemingly unremitting sexism, and in that respect, Leder’s film gets its priorities right.