Before she was the second woman ever appointed to the Supreme Court and the “Notorious RBG,” Ruth Bader Ginsburg was a wife, mother, and frustrated lawyer who dreamed of leaving her mark on the world. On the Basis of Sex, a suitably inspiring biopic despite its narrative unevenness and occasional reliance on schmaltz, seeks to show audiences the origin story of a cultural icon.
The story follows Ginsburg (a quietly ferocious Felicity Jones) from her days as a first-year student at Harvard Law School to her graduation at the top of her class at Columbia to her time as a professor at Rutgers Law. The movie’s meatiest portion, however, focuses on a career-defining tax code case in 1970 that would cement a lifetime dedication to fighting for gender equality and civil liberties, beginning with co-founding the Women’s Rights Project at the ACLU.
Director Mimi Leder elevates an uneven script (by Daniel Stiepleman) with her keen eye, continually foregrounding Ginsburg’s story and navigating a screenplay that tries to jam too much into its two-hour running time. We’re meant to understand all the parts of Ginsburg that make her tick: the bedrock of her marriage to Martin Ginsburg (a charming Armie Hammer); her desire to inspire her daughter, Jane (a spunky Cailee Spaeny); and her dedication to her career.
Just one of those elements — the romance, the 1970 court case, Ginsburg’s struggles to find her footing as a lawyer because no one will hire a woman — could be fodder enough for a film on its own. Ginsburg has led an extraordinary life, and so many of her struggles and accomplishments merit attention, yet each of them is lessened in storytelling value by the attempt to smash them together. Still, Leder’s pacing and visual acuity (as well as her offering the rare opportunity to see a woman’s story told by, go figure, a woman) mean the overall product is greater than any one of its too-numerous narrative strands.
Stiepleman, who is Ginsburg’s nephew, penned the screenplay with input from Ginsburg herself and Jane Ginsburg. The result feels a bit more like an old-fashioned made-for-TV biopic than it does a major motion picture, particularly when this year also gave us the critically acclaimed documentary RBG, which offers a much deeper and incisive portrait of the woman behind the legend.
On the Basis of Sex rightfully honors Ginsburg’s place in history, but in its efforts to hammer home the magnitude of her accomplishments, it ends up making them feel more like sentimental plot points in a whitewashed Hollywood script than truly resonant moments. It’s telling that the most powerful scene in the entire film is not Ginsburg’s clear-eyed courtroom speech or one of her attempts to connect with her daughter over second-wave feminism, but rather the brief cameo of the real Ginsburg at the film’s close.
The cast members should also receive their due for lifting the material — Jones in particular for her deft handling of Ginsburg’s Brookyln accent and ability to imbue her portrayal with a steadiness that belies Ginsburg’s constant simmering frustrations. She is met with closed doors and disrespect at every turn, and Jones perfectly calibrates Ginsburg’s ambition and dedication with an idealistic pragmatism that flickers across her face in every frame. Sam Waterston has a rare turn as a bad guy, the antithesis of the American moral rectitude he’s embodied in everything from The Newsroom to Law and Order. As the misogynist Harvard law school dean who later figures directly in the case against Charles Moritz’s (Chris Mulkey) appeal, Waterston is infuriating, an apt portrait of the insidiousness of institutionalized sexism, without ever verging into caricature.
Ginsburg is an American hero worthy of lionization, and despite On the Basis of Sex’s often corny script, the film represents a noble attempt to showcase the roots of how deeply her efforts and passions would come to alter the fabric of American life. The film is strongest in Ginsburg’s quieter moments, as she susses out how to game the system into overturning centuries of gender-based discrimination. It’s impossible to overstate just how much Ginsburg has done to make life better for so many Americans, women in particular, and On the Basis of Sex is a touching, if slightly too Hollywood attempt to convey that. B
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