Photo courtesy of Amblin Partners / Participant Media / Robert Cort Productions
Felicity Jones stars in “On the Basis of Sex,” the true story of future Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg.
The straightforward yet fascinating “On the Basis of Sex” cannot help but be inspiring. In this story of the case that put Ruth Bader Ginsburg on the map, Felicity Jones and Armie Hammer bring the saga to life with chemistry and warmth. Of course, the knowledge that the determined young woman in the center of the story will eventually become a Supreme Court justice adds more than a little to appreciating the film. But this is essentially an exciting and involving law procedural full of ironic details, dramatic setbacks and great characters.
When we meet young Ruth, or Kiki, she is a member of the second Harvard Law School class ever to allow women. At a dinner to ostensibly welcome these rare women, the dean, played with a deeply ingrained smugness by Sam Waterston, asks each lady to stand and explain why she deserves a spot that should have gone to a man. And this attitude is from the man who wanted to let women in in the first place.
Infuriating does not begin to describe circumstance after circumstance Ruth faces, and these many moments recall another uplifting biopic from recent memory: “Hidden Figures.” Like that film, you can spend the entire runtime cheering on the accomplishments and changes or marveling at ironic current reverberations in equal measure. Of course, that film was about space travel and this one hinges on a tax code.
Highly qualified Ruth simply cannot get a job in a law firm; one objection is that having a female lawyer in the office would make the other lawyers’ wives jealous. She has no choice but to become a law professor, with no courtroom experience, while her husband, Martin, is a tax attorney. Martin gets a client who is suing for a tax deduction for paying for nursing care, and it is here that their qualifications, circumstances and interests come together. The kicker is that the client is a man who is a victim of gender discrimination. The Ginsburgs see this as a foot in the door of the countless laws that are based on gender, and the wheels are put in motion.
Even those ostensibly on Ruth’s side, like Justin Theroux as an American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) lawyer, scoff at the term “gender discrimination,” and do not immediately see it as an important issue. When a Department of Defense supercomputer makes a cool cameo to do the hard work of digging up the hundreds of gender-based laws, it’s mind-boggling to see how many instances there are. There is a lot to learn from this eye-opening biopic.
Ruth repeatedly explains that her own mother taught her to keep her emotions in check, and the film’s strongest moments occur when emotions are contained as well. The facts of the story are strong enough; when feelings are forced, the film becomes a bit too on the nose. For example, when Ruth and her teenage daughter are catcalled, the daughter speaks up and tells the rude construction workers off and Ruth has a lightbulb moment about how the younger generation is empowered. But at this point in the story, we do not need convincing, and the circumstances are more than sufficient for drama.
This is the story of Ruth before she was “notorious” and it adds dimension to the Ruth Bader Ginsburg we know now, a feminist icon who has spawned T-shirts, coloring books, an exercise book and more. But in this film, she doesn’t even always pass muster with her feminist daughter, and that’s what makes it a good story. Passionate discussion, hard work and rigorous intellect rings through the Ginsburg household, and when this background merges with the historical events in the foreground, “On the Basis of Sex” is a truly engaging film. When the facts speak for themselves, it is particularly powerful.
“On the Basis of Sex” is currently available to rent.
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