While On the Basis of Sex illustrates the obstacle-laden road Ruth Bader Ginsburg (Felicity Jones) had becoming a lawyer, it pauses for a moment of attachment. A place where we understand the to-be U.S. Supreme Court Justice on a deeper level than we can by simply following her real-life legacy.
In this scene, Martin Ginsburg (Armie Hammer) is diagnosed with testicular cancer. He cracks a wry joke at the doctor’s expense, but it is clearly a facade. Ruth—Kiki, as Marty affectionately calls her—gets into the hospital bed with him and makes a claim to his ability to overcome this obstacle. She breathes it effortlessly, as if it is a known truth that he just doesn’t see.
It is a lacking scene. Ultimately too cloying to be truly affecting. It is stagey and mawkish. This should be the moment that endears us to not only these two characters, but to the film itself. For a film about Justice Ginsburg to be effective, particularly in a year where a well-regarded documentary about her life was also released, it ought to provide a more intimate understanding of her life and life’s work.
While we do indeed see these things—she is already married to Marty with a child at the film’s start, and we see the family age with her career—the home-life aspect of the film doesn’t feel authentic. It might feel lived in, but once we reach key narrative moments like the one aforementioned, or the instance where Ruth first sees the potential in her daughter (Cailee Spaeny), the moments feel somewhat empty. They come across as necessary beats in a biopic formula.
The career trajectory laid out for Ruth in the film, conversely, is quite engaging. It can be rendered static, with scenes depicting Ruth and her colleagues thumbing rapidly through legal documents. But the landmark case she undertakes becomes an intriguing point of conflict.
Of course, we don’t get there until around the midpoint. Before that, we have to see Ginsburg’s trials in college. Screenwriter Daniel Stiepleman feels the need to remind us of the prevalence of sexism throughout the decades. The reminders come in the form of pointed dialogue, written as if stamped with emphatic exclamation points and a shoulder nudge. As if to say, “Pretty bad, huh? Ruthie’s gonna have to fix this one.”
It’s a rather trite handling of an inherently compelling backstory for one of U.S. history’s more decorated individuals. The fact of the matter is that the film does the work of illustrating the discrimination facing Ginsburg and the American people at large without having to put the words in Sam Waterston’s mouth—“What does it mean to be a Harvard man.” It does the work by telling the story at all.
Once the narrative reaches the Moritz v. Commissioner of Internal Revenue case, the movie finally starts engaging with Ginsburg’s career in a meaningful way. It also begins probing at the things that a fictional biopic can do that a film like RBG cannot. We get to see the struggle of trying to get the ACLU to back her case. We get to see a mock court in which the nuances of her argument begin taking shape.
These scenes are engaging. These recreations serve a narrative and interpretive purpose, unlike the expository venture into her college years. And although the final climactic court case is an on-the-nose portrayal of a system first learning to listen, it is more fulfilling than the first half of the film.
To speak on the performances would yield little. Jones shows a lot of panache, but the difficult task of embodying an outspoken individual like Ginsburg is not apparently achieved. However, her and Hammer show a genuine chemistry that does add something to the film’s better moments.
Frankly, what On the Basis of Sex provides is surface level. The conflict is ever-present and the persistence of its central figure is inspiring, but the film does not quite rise to the level of inspiration of its real-life subject. There is less to glean here than in the true history that this narrative merely glances against.
On the Basis of Sex: C+
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—Alex Brannan (@TheAlexBrannan)