ON THE BASIS OF SEX movie poster | ©2018 Focus Features

ON THE BASIS OF SEX movie poster | ©2018 Focus Features

Stars: Felicity Jones, Armie Hammer, Justin Theroux, Sam Waterston, Cailee Spaetny, Kathy Bates, Stephen Root, Chris Mulkey
Writer: Daniel Stiepleman
Director: Mimi Leder
Distributor: Focus Features
Release Date: December 25, 2018

ON THE BASIS OF SEX tackles two historical subjects: a precedent-setting legal case and the early career of Ruth Bader Ginsburg. Similar in some respects to last year’s MARSHALL, which concerned an early case of the late Supreme Court justice Thurgood Marshall, ON THE BASIS OF SEX doesn’t try to tackle Ginsburg’s whole life, or even how she got onto the Supreme Court. Instead it revolves around a single case.

We meet Ruth Bader Ginsburg in her early days as one of the first female students at Harvard Law School. As played by Felicity Jones, the young Ginsburg we meet in 1956 has spunk and spark, but not yet the steel we associate with the older real person. ON THE BASIS OF SEX spends a fair part of time on Ginsburg’s home life. Ginsburg is married to fellow Harvard Law student Marty Ginsburg (Armie Hammer) who, at least as depicted here, is the most enlightened, egalitarian, all-round wonderful man in all of ‘50s America. Marty is unfailingly supportive, unthreatened, perfectly happy to cook supper and look after the baby when the occasion demands. After they both graduate, Marty seems more upset than Ruth is when she can’t find a job at a legal firm.

Ruth winds up teaching law instead of practicing it. She’s inspired by her students, especially the female ones who question everything. Marty gets a job with a prestigious tax law firm in New York. Here (again, according to the film) he’s the one who finds an obscure tax case that he thinks might get Ruth into a courtroom with an appeal. It involves discrimination – against a man – on the basis of sex, which is precisely the kind of thing that Ruth has wanted to take to court.

ON THE BASIS OF SEX has such a conventional sheen to it that, even if we didn’t know where Ginsburg’s career took her, we could guess the outcome of the court case. Downbeat historical legal dramas don’t generally get this sort of glossy treatment. Director Mimi Leder and screenwriter Daniel Stiepleman seem to understand that we’re aware of this, so they give us the unconventional details, and there are plenty of these. For starters, the case is so bizarre yet seemingly trivial that it’s almost the last thing anybody would expect to reverse centuries of legally enshrined discrimination. Then again, probably nobody expected that Al Capone would be brought down by taxes until it happened. The surprises here are plentiful and intriguing.

As someone who does not know Ginsburg’s early history, this reviewer cannot speak to the accuracy of how some events are depicted. If the filmmakers have taken liberties, it seems counterintuitive to show Ginsburg as so frequently relying on encouragement from others – mainly Marty, but also their teenage daughter Jane (Cailee Spaetny), ACLU lawyer Mel Wulf (Justin Theroux) and more – before she is willing to go full force. Still, it’s a coherent characterization, and Jones plays Ginsburg with conviction, albeit with an accent that fluctuates. Hammer is sweet and warm, Theroux is suitably abrasive and Spaetny is passionate. Kathy Bates has commanding toughness as Dorothy Kenyon, one of Ginsburg’s legal idols, and Sam Waterston and Stephen Root give dimension to their change-resistant authority figures.

ON THE BASIS OF SEX does not break any new ground in terms of style. However, it’s an entertaining look at how a lot of current laws and social norms were born. As an added bonus, it’s got the real Ginsburg at the end, appearing as we hear a recorded quote. If this film about her isn’t as impressive as its subject, it still gets its points across.

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Article: Movie Review: ON THE BASIS OF SEX


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