Rose among thorns: Felicity Jones as a young RBG in On The Basis of Sex. Photograph from Storyteller Distribution Co., LLC.
Culture Movies

Review: ‘On The Basis of Sex’ is a portrait of a Supreme Court Justice as rock star

The scope and ambition of the film may be modest, but its director hits story beats with all the force of an asteroid hitting Earth.
Andrew Paredes | Mar 12 2019

Directed by Mimi Leder

Starring Felicity Jones, Armie Hammer, Justin Theroux

On the Basis of Sex, the biopic on long-serving United States Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, opens on a poetic, if a tad heavy-handed, image: Ginsburg (Felicity Jones) as a bright-eyed law student, floating in bright blue amidst a sea of dark-suited, male Harvard law students about to enter their first freshman class. (Harvard Law didn’t start admitting women until 1950–which is 133 years into its existence.)

Ginsberg begins her journey to the top of her class in Harvard. Photograph from Storyteller Distribution Co., LLC. 

It’s an opening that effectively sets up Ginsburg as an underdog, bumping up against the barriers of male chauvinism. At a welcome dinner, Ginsberg watches as the dean (Sam Waterston) interrogates her fellow female students about why they deserve spots that could have gone to men. After he cuts down one of her classmates, Ginsberg provides a witheringly sarcastic response. Then she begins her journey to the top of her class, all while attending her husband Marty’s (Armie Hammer) sophomore classes after a testicular cancer diagnosis and being a mother to her infant daughter. It should be obvious to everyone in the audience that Ruth Bader Ginsburg is a rock star.

It’s a viewpoint that director Mimi Leder and screenwriter Daniel Stiepleman (who happens to be Ginsburg’s nephew) advocate. It’s there in how they pile adversity upon adversity on their heroine, and have her react in her consistently unflappable way. In 1960s New York, no law firm is smart enough to appreciate Ginsberg’s brilliance, so she settles for a teaching position in Rutgers, in a city roiling with the pent-up anger and defiance of women seeking emancipation. She butts heads with her firstborn Jane (Cailee Spaeny), now a teenager caught up in the first wave of women’s liberation activism, sneering at her mother for burying herself in law textbooks while change is sweeping the streets and knocking on their door.

Ginsberg is portrayed as unshaken. The Photograph from Storyteller Distribution Co., LLC. 

Whether she’s quizzing her students on legal precedent or sparring with her onscreen daughter, Jones captures that endearing awkwardness about Ginsberg—that constant, wobbly effort to sand down her prickly edges because she knows those edges won’t get her far as she tries to change the system from within. After all, it’s inside the system that she encountered this emerging concept of gender-based discrimination, a legal practice upholding the subservience of women that male lawyers smugly cite as the natural order.

The scope and ambition of On the Basis of Sex are actually modest, covering only Ginsberg’s years as a law student up until the first case of many that she argued against gender discrimination—an obscure case named Moritz v. Commissioner of Internal Revenue, in which a Colorado man caring for his sick mother is denied a tax deduction on the grounds that only women can be caregivers. It soon becomes clear why Stiepleman chose this case to be the end point of his script: It’s a case his aunt and uncle worked on together.

There is a conscious effort to portray Marty Ginsburg as more than set dressing to his wife’s story; he was a feminist long before enlightened men realized they could be feminists. And Hammer uses everything in his arsenal—his charm, his uncredited intelligence, even his height—to get that point across. He is certainly given more to work with than Jones did in her supportive-wife role in The Theory of Everything.

Armie Hammer plays Mart Ginsburg -- a feminist long before enlightened men realized they could be feminists. Photograph from Storyteller Distribution Co., LLC. 

The scope and ambition may be modest, but Leder (who directed the asteroid-hitting-Earth disaster drama Deep Impact) hits story beats with all the force of, well, an asteroid hitting Earth. She frames opposing counsel—which includes Ginsberg’s former Harvard Law dean—like X-Files villains, ensconced in a shadowy, smoky study talking about the death of American society if they don’t “put this idea of gender discrimination to bed once and for all!” She employs Justin Theroux, playing American Civil Liberties Union director Mel Wulf, to jolt the movie with his abrasiveness, as he stares down the diminutive Jones and recommends that she settle her case.

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Through it all, Ginsberg is portrayed as unshaken, to the point where her initial, faltering demeanor in front of the Colorado Appeals Court almost feels put-on, like a feint to up the drama. But it’s not enough to throw this biopic against the ropes: On the Basis of Sex starts out portraying the future SCOTUS Justice as a rock star, but ends up glorifying her as a prizefighter. And part of the thrill of watching its showy narrative tactics is witnessing the prizefighter take her punches…and getting back up each time.