‘On the Basis of Sex’ Review

ON THE BASIS OF SEX (7 out of 10) Directed by Mimi Leder; Written by Daniel Stiepleman; Starring Felicity Jones, Armie Hammer, Justin Theroux, Sam Waterston, Kathy Bates; Rated PG-13 for some language and suggestive content; Running time 120 minutes; In select release December 25, 2018.

Before you get too excited, no, On the Basis of Sex is not about sex at all. At least, not that kind of sex. Rather, it’s about gender. How in the 1950’s a world like the one in which we live could hardly be conceived. It’s the inspiring story of how a young woman defied the odds–and believe me they were stacked against her–to become the second woman to serve on the Supreme Court.

Ruth Bader Ginsburg has become a pop culture icon, affectionately known as Notorious RBG, but in the beginning she was one of only a handful of women to attend Harvard Law School. She is dismissed and discriminated against as she continues to excel in academia only to struggle with finding employment as a lawyer.

Deftly portrayed by Felicity Jones, we see Ginsberg’s story unfold, and she is an intellectual powerhouse housed in the body of a petite woman who is only ignored because of her gender. Her husband Martin Ginsberg (Armie Hammer) supports her every step of the way, and she in turn helps him finish his courses when he’s diagnosed with cancer.

The accent, however, leaves something to be desired. Perhaps I’m just accustomed to hearing Felicity Jones with a British accent. But I became accustomed to it as the film moved along.

We follow Ginsberg’s frustrating path from college to settling for a professorship at Rutgers Law School, but then her husband puts a case in her lap that promises to open up the floodgates to challenging all of the discrimination laws based on gender. The case is not against a woman but against a man, Charles Moritz, who is unable to receive a tax deduction as a caregiver since the law assumes that all caregivers are female.

I wouldn’t have expected a movie with a second half that focuses largely on a single court case to be as engaging as it was, but not only was my attention grabbed, but the rest of the audience appeared equally enthralled. Every so often cheers would erupt at certain moments in the film.

The screenwriter Daniel Stiepleman is the nephew of Ginsberg. One might assume that his view of his aunt is through rose-colored glasses, but generally any biopic is going to have some creative license. But it’s also equally reasonable to say that since he knows her, his capture of her personality is more accurate than anyone else could depict. Having never met Ginsburg myself, I simply cannot say. What I can say is he writes Ginsburg as a frustrated, educated woman who is tired of being told she can’t do something because she’s a woman. And she sees a way to start changing that, and she does. It’s an inspiring story, and often she challenges men on their views, from the the dean of Harvard Law School (Sam Waterston) to the judges in the Moritz case.

It’s a finely crafted film that showcases an important court case, and follows a current Justice’s rise.. And the opening and closing of the film focus visually on the rise–the young Ginsburg ascending steps in both scenes, but the first is to college, and the final is to the steps of the Supreme Court. The very last shot is particularly poignant.

All the characters are colorful, from Justin Theroux as Mel Wulf to Kathy Bates as Dorothy Kenyon, and the snappy dialogue offsets any boring legalese, and the film shows what one person can do with perseverance. I also learned some things, and that’s never a bad thing. And aside from the accent, I would not be surprised to see Felicity Jones on the list for Best Actress. All in all, I would recommend.