The Movie Guru: ‘On the Basis of Sex’ shows softer side of Ruth Bader Ginsburg
On the Basis of Sex
Rated: PG-13 for some language and suggestive content.
Written by: Daniel Stiepleman.
Directed by: Mimi Leder.
Starring: Felicity Jones, Armie Hammer, Justin Theroux, Sam Waterston, Kathy Bates, Cailee Spaeny, Jack Reynor, Stephen Root and more.
Grade: Three stars.
Of course, the sex referenced in the title has nothing to do with romance at all. It refers to Ruth Bader Ginsberg’s lifelong fight to overturn sex discrimination laws, specifically the very first battle she and her husband fought against said laws. It’s an important look into the not-so-distant past, when women weren’t even allowed to have bank accounts in their own name.
But beneath the (possibly too careful) mix of history and biography runs the kind of quiet lifelong love story that normally doesn’t make it into movies. Martin Ginsberg never upstages Ruth in the narrative, but his support of his wife and confidence in her talent runs underneath every moment of the movie. It’s Ruth’s intelligence and tenacity that made her into the woman she is today, but her marriage was an important part of that foundation.
How it all happened
The movie starts with Ruth’s first day at Harvard Law School, the same one her husband was already attending. When cancer leaves him largely bedridden, Ruth starts taking both his classes as well as her own. Fast forward several professionally frustrating years for Ruth as a women’s law professor, and Martin finds an obscure tax case that Ruth can potentially use to start toppling the entire system. Can she overcome her lack of courtroom experience, as well as her own insecurities, to strike a blow for equality?
In a lot of ways, “On the Basis of Sex” is an absolutely traditional biographical movie. More emphasis is placed on the sequence of events than on the psychology of the protagonist, giving the audience a better sense of history than of the person. It’s a great history lesson, but it’s hard to get a deeper sense of the person.
The movie does give us tantalizing glimpses of insight. Ruth is portrayed as having to overcome some of her own internalized prejudices about the proper way to do things, an issue that brings her into conflict with her daughter. She also wrestles with severe self-doubt, though it’s resolved just in time for a fantastically rousing closing that is in line with several of Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s own arguments.
Felicity Jones is interesting as Ruth, capturing the spirit of an intelligent, determined woman if not Ruth’s specific essence. Armie Hammer is charming as Martin, a cheerful, intelligent man who clearly thinks his wife is the smartest person he’s ever met. If the real man was anything like him, he probably had no trouble being referred to as “Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s husband.”
“On the Basis of Sex” is written by Ruth’s nephew, and a brief appearance by Ruth herself at the very end makes it clear the movie received her stamp of approval. In the end, it suggests that “On the Basis of Sex” is the way Ruth herself wants her story to be told.
Love, as it turns out, may be more important than we think.
Jenniffer Wardell is an award-winning movie critic and member of the Denver Film Critics Society. Find her on Twitter at @wardellwriter or drop her a line at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Chris Anthony’s documentary film project chronicles post-war activities of the 10th Mountain Division.