In these divisive times a film like On the Basis of Sex, the biopic on Associate Supreme Court Justice/cultural icon Ruth Bader Ginsburg, could have slipped into total hagiography to where one expects the Notorious RBG to walk on water & bring sunshine into the world. On the Basis of Sex, while still tilted towards worshipful complete with 'inspirational' tropes, has strong performances and narrows things down to one moment in Justice Ginsburg's life that crystallize her worldview.
Ruth Bader Ginsburg (Felicity Jones) is passionate about law and her husband, Marty Ginsburg (Armie Hammer).While she chafes under the open sexism of Harvard Dean Ernest Griswold (Sam Waterston), she perseveres, not just with her own classes but with Marty's after he's diagnosed with testicular cancer along with caring for their daughter Jane.
With Marty's cancer in remission, the Ginsburgs still struggle. Ruth cannot find employment despite her qualifications due to her gender and reluctantly takes a teaching position at Rutgers while Marty enters tax law. She sees the protests and social change but isn't active in it, despite Jane's (Cailee Spaeny) more militant manner. Ruth still wants to try her hand at practicing law but finds the sexual barriers firmly up.
Then comes an obscure tax issue that piques her interest. A Colorado taxpayer was denied a caregiver deduction after hiring a nurse to care for a mother in declining health. The denial was made on the basis of sex. There is one difference to other cases however. The person denied the deduction on the basis of sex was a man.
Lifelong bachelor Charles Moritz (Chris Mulkey) is the plaintiff. The law states that the deduction is for women, men being allowed the deduction only if their wives are incapacitated or widowers. Ruth is convinced that Moritz's case can be the precedent to chip away at gender-based discrimination, reversing laws and rulings that favor men and separate men and women.
The case goes to the Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals, where she must make her case against her old nemesis Griswold, now Solicitor General, and her former Professor Brown (Stephen Root), now the IRS chief, both of whom are determined to 'keep women in their place'. This case is made harder by the fact that Ruth has never argued a case before and both she and Marty, who reluctantly co-leads, seem to bungle their arguments.
Keeping to heart what they learned in law school, to not take the temperature of the weather of the day but the climate of the era, Ruth argues that essentially the times, they are a-changing, and that these laws that create separate statuses for men and women are antiquated.
In the end, we learn that the Tenth Court agrees with the Ginsburgs, that Marty Ginsburg died in 2010 and that eventually Ruth Bader Ginsburg was appointed to the Supreme Court on a Senate vote of 93-6. The real Justice Ginsburg herself appears at the end, walking the steps to the Supreme Court.
As a side note, it does seem peculiar that Green Book, co-written by one of the main character's sons, has been criticized in some circles for painting said character in a positive light, yet that kind of criticism has not been leveled at On the Basis of Sex, written solely by the main character's nephew. If one argues that something like Green Book whitewashes a character due to the writer being related to that character, why can't the same by argued about On the Basis of Sex?
Yet I digress.
There were elements in Mimi Leder's film that were off-putting, falling into 'inspirational biopic' tropes. There was Mychael Danna's 'stirring' score, playing soft brass at key moments. One almost expects Fanfare for the Common Man to start playing as Ginsburg speaks to the three-judge panel. There were shots of Brown and Griswold bathed in darkness, missing only their mustaches to twirl to indicate how evil they were.
This is how Root and Waterston were directed, in particular Waterston. In an early scene at a faculty dinner to welcome the female students, he asks each of them to state their names, where they are from and why they were there, taking the place of a man at Harvard Law. It's one thing to have contempt for women in a "male" field. It's another to be so open about it.
Granted, this may have happened, but one wonders if perhaps a slightly more subtle manner may have worked better.
In other things, Leder and Stiepleman did extremely well. The subtly of showing Cosmopolitan Magazine billboards and catcalling to Ruth and Jane while they talk about the hurdles women face in the legal system worked much better than just pointing out the chauvinist manners of a Brown or Griswold.
On the Basis of Sex also benefits greatly from Felicity Jones' performance as Ruth Bader Ginsburg, a woman who is able, competent and wants true equality for both sexes. She brings a quiet strength and dignity mixed with a burning righteousness. You respect Ginsburg and see her as a heroine. Hammer's Marty is essentially the adoring husband, forever supportive and with never a negative word to say. Even in the one scene where they come close to arguing about how Marty seems fine in letting his law firm coworkers belittle her he is remarkably even-keeled.
For all the grief Nancy Reagan got for perpetually looking adoringly at her husband, she might have drawn lessons from Marty Ginsburg.
One surprise is Justin Theroux as Mel Wulf, the ACLU lawyer best described as her frenemy: supportive but also critical of her methods. From his voice to his manner, Theroux gives a strong performance as the closest thing Ginsburg has to an equal in law. Unlike Marty, he isn't worshipful or deferential, but unlike Brown or Griswold he isn't dismissive or contemptuous.
On the whole, On the Basis of Sex is a respectable portrait of this Associate Justice, a look at the formation of this formidable legal mind. It's well-acted and directed, making its own case as to why Justice Ginsburg is a woman for all seasons.