REVIEW: On the Basis of Sex [2018]

Rating: 7 out of 10.
  • Rating: PG-13 | Runtime: 120 minutes
    Release Date: December 25th, 2018 (USA)
    Studio: Focus Features
    Director(s): Mimi Leder
    Writer(s): Daniel Stiepleman

Hooray for Mommy.

Even if we weren’t mired in the middle of the Trump Administration with a constant tidal wave of sexist and xenophobic rhetoric masquerading as national emergencies, the story of Ruth Bader Ginsburg defying the patriarchy where it came to archaic laws arbitrarily creating separate rights based on gender would be timely. Because while it’s fun to joke about giving the eighty-five year old Supreme Court justice a kidney so another GOP-sanctioned candidate doesn’t get shoved through without proper vetting, a line spoken by one of her husband Marty’s professors in Mimi Leder‘s On the Basis of Sex can’t help but prove a rallying cry for today’s activists. He says that, “The weather of the day doesn’t dictate the climate of the era.” No words could be truer.

That’s the sort of lofty sentiment that can put wind in your sails and it does for more than just the star of this biopic. Ruth (Felicity Jones) uses them as the inspiration to not back down when the odds are stacked against her to the point where even her friends tell her to give up the fight. Marty (Armie Hammer) uses them to see the merit of an unwinnable and obscure tax case his employers would rather have thrown in the garbage. But they also reveal themselves to be attractive for the men fated to heed the call of history. It’s no coincidence that Leder revels in showing the stifled smirks of ego on the faces of the three judges hearing Charlie Moritz’s (Chris Mulkey) case.

No, those are the smiles of dupes and pawns. The reactions of men so drunk on power that they probably recognized what overturning the law meant for their legacies more than what it meant for equal rights. And that’s okay. Like Moritz explains to Ruth: he knows a salesman when he sees one. After four lawyers said he had no chance of overturning the ruling that stated he couldn’t declare his mother’s caregiver’s salary on his taxes because he’s a never-married bachelor, Charlie knows this latest attorney knocking on his door must have an angle the others didn’t. What he didn’t know, however, was that her motives were pure. He chooses to defer to Ruth because he believes her when she says this is just a beginning.

And let’s face it: most great things that have come down from on-high in this country did so on the backs of men who saw the benefit of what it could mean to their careers. That’s not me being cynical, just honest. Many of them surely had altruism in the game too, but even then it had to outweigh the risk of the backlash. Look at ACLU legal director Mel Wulf (Justin Theroux) not wanting to stake his position on the unproven then-professor (and old friend) Ginsburg’s shoulders until someone of Dorothy Kenyon’s (Kathy Bates) stature came along to push the issue. Look at the men and women who had her respect and still implored her to let Marty stand before the appellate court instead. Reputation moves mountains.

That’s what makes Ginsburg so good. She knows the history, players, and precedents. She sees the strategies her opponents are using and singles out the flaw to turn the tables and appeal to reputations rather than hearts. Ruth is told to change minds and then laws, but she knows—courtesy of her daughter Jane’s (Cailee Spaeny) generation’s willingness to march in the street—that minds were changed. What really had to be altered was how we looked at the laws. They were products of bygone eras in need of updating by men (and ultimately women once this ruling snowballed further) with the guts to do so. She spun it so the judges felt they were doing the heavy lifting by giving them judiciary immortality on a silver platter.

This court case is where On the Basis of Sex soars and is rightfully spotlighted as the majority of Daniel Stiepleman‘s script. He and Leder provide just enough exposition as far as Harvard law (and the barriers to authentic equality that would rear their heads again later on, including Sam Waterston‘s Griswold and Stephen Root‘s Brown), Marty’s illness, and Ruth’s calling shifting towards women’s rights even in the educational sector so the motivation to take on Moritz’s battle doesn’t arrive out of nowhere. They show the love and support Marty shares (with an intentionally over-the-top sincerity to hammer home the notion that being a good father and husband was and, in many instances, still is the exception) and the promise of greatness Ruth so clearly possesses.

Does it fall prey to convention at times? Yes. Does the cyclical nature of those aforementioned words on the weather or Jane’s perfectly plot-supportive rebelliousness scream of manufactured intellectual and emotional propulsion? Of course. But none of this detracts from the film’s purpose of getting its message out about how important a figure Ruth Bader Ginsburg is to America’s hope for real egalitarianism. On the contrary, those things ensure the point is driven home for any who need the extra push. And for those who say it simply mires the whole in a liberal agenda to take away from the great work those judges did by taking her arguments and acting upon them? Well, they probably saw those smirks as clarity rather than the smug opportunism they were.

In my opinion Leder effectively distills the singular drive Ginsburg shows from walking onto Harvard’s campus to ascending the Supreme Court steps less than twenty years later in its two hours. And its Cliff’s Notes construction stays perpetually on task with a focused, standout performance by Jones. She’s the one who’s constantly asked to take a seat by the side of someone “better” and yet never wavers in her determination to stand back up (thanks in part to well-placed kicks in the butt by Marty and Jane). We watch her endure the same discrimination she seeks to strike from the record in ways that spark her to fight even harder than before. “Proficient” may not pop like “masterpiece,” but some art excels under its label just the same.

[1] Felicity Jones stars as Ruth Bader Ginsburg in Mimi Leder’s ON THE BASIS OF SEX, a Focus Features release. Credit: Jonathan Wenk / Focus Features
[2] (l to r.) Felicity Jones as Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Cailee Spaeny as Jane Ginsburg, and Kathy Bates as Dorothy Kenyon star in Mimi Leder’s ON THE BASIS OF SEX, a Focus Features release. Credit: Jonathan Wenk / Focus Features
[3] (l to r.) Armie Hammer as Marty Ginsburg and Felicity Jones as Ruth Bader Ginsburg star in Mimi Leder’s ON THE BASIS OF SEX, a Focus Features release. Credit: Jonathan Wenk / Focus Features

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