On The Basis Of Sex: A Rousing Tale Of A Real-Life Hero
Director Mimi Leder (most known for Deep Impact and Pay It Forward) returns after a 9 year hiatus to bring a portion of Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s life to the big screen with On the Basis of Sex. Working from a script penned by newcomer and RBG’s nephew Daniel Stiepleman, Leder crafts her first thoroughly solid feature that manages to be enjoyable and inspiring, despite its formulaic biology.
The film tells an inspiring and spirited true story that follows young lawyer Ruth Bader Ginsburg (Felicity Jones) as she teams with her husband Marty (Armie Hammer) to bring a groundbreaking case before the U.S. Court of Appeals and overturn a century of gender discrimination.
Though it’s definitely not as powerful as its real-life counterpart, On the Basis of Sex still effectively backhands you with dismissive sexism — some used for comedic effect, others to reinforce social injustice — and leaves a burning sting of inspiration that sticks with you after the credits roll. It’s a film with an important message, and it feels comfortably at home in our current milieu. After all, a Court must be aware of the climate of the era, not the weather of the day when making their ruling, which is a sentiment On the Basis of Sex securely fastens to its lapel like one of RBG’s many brooches.
The film opens in the late 50s to a sea suit coats and dress shoes in soft focus, as they shuffle like cattle toward one of Harvard’s auditoriums. As these faceless figures slowly twist further and further into blurred figures, a young RBG emerges in crisp focus as she navigates herself through this densely packed crowd of men toward her orientation, where we learn that she’s one of nine women in a class of about 500 men. It’s a pretty strong visual metaphor that perfectly sets the stage for the remainder of the film, and once the opening credits finish up, we are quickly presented with a lot of disparaging sexist comments that fuel RBG’s drive for gender equality. One particularly humous and infuriating example early on involves the Dean of Harvard Law holding a dinner just for the nine women wherein he has the audacity to ask, "How do you justify taking a spot from a qualified man?"
On the Basis of Sex is full of these snide jabs and punches of systemic sexism, which serve as a clear distinction of the climate of its opening era (the 50s) versus that of its close (the 70s). The 60s sparked a lot of social change in the American ethos, which the film fast forwards over to maintain focus, allowong its effects to be evident through the differences in attitude between Ruth and her daughter (played Cailee Spaeny). Given that a bulk of the story happens in the late 60s, early 70s, the biopic could’ve opened a bit closer to the end of its narrative. Its time spent in the late 50s serves to hammer home the film’s point, but it meanders slightly (particularly w/r/t Martin Ginsburg’s cancer, which seems shoehorned in the film for the sake of an ending title card) and doesn’t exactly justify all the time spent there.
The film’s pursuit for gender equality is a bit heavy handed, but it’s so affectionately anchored by RBG’s relationship with her husband (the always wonderful Armie Hammer) and her daughter (Spaeny). Any interaction with the family feels very authentic, and it subtly sheds light into the ying and yang of Ruth and Marty; Ruth being a total workaholic, while the Marty is more inclined to cook and clean and spend time with the family. It’s also heartwarming to see a husband completely have the back of his wife and RBG’s friends and family encourage her to persevere (some take more convincing than others), no matter the odds.
Felicity Jones is a commanding powerhouse and gives an astounding performance, despite her prosthetic teeth getting in the way of things. Armie Hammer and Jones have wonderful chemistry, and he brightens up the film with his oozing charisma. Filling out the rest of the cast is Justin Theroux, Kathy Bates, Chris Mulkey, Sam Waterson and a criminally underutilized Stephen Root, most of which aren’t given enough screen time to make a lasting impression; their characters are fairly black and white — either they support RBG’s cause and are good, or do not and are bad.
Mimi Leder has a good eye and brings a lot of energy to the film with her camera movement. The cinematography from Michael Grady baths every frame in a warm deep focus that gives this biopic a nice sheen. The script is strong but could’ve benefitted from eliminating some of its fatty elements (it should really clock in at 90-105 minutes instead of 120), but given that RBG’s nephew wrote it, it’s surely more true to life than most biopics pretend to be. All in all, It’s a bit formulaic and far from perfect, but at the end of the day, it pleases the court.
Recommendation: Fans of RBG, history, and inspirational stories about overcoming the odds should definitely give this film a day in court.
Rating: 3.5 gavels outta 5.
What did you think? Did you feel inspired by RBG’s story? Was this better than the documentary? We want to know. Share your thoughts and feelings in the comments section below, and as always, remember to viddy well.