Chronicling the monumental life of 85-year-old Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Julie Cohen and Betsy West's stirring documentary "RBG" was an unexpected winner at the box office this past summer. Along with the Fred Rogers doc "Won't You Be My Neighbor?" it was one of several high-profile docs that drew big crowds in 2018, benefitting from audiences' apparent hunger for inspiring stories of real-life heroes.
Now hot on the heels of "RBG" comes "On the Basis of Sex," a dramatized version of Ginsburg's life from director Mimi Leder. With the glossy sheen of a prestige picture, the crowd-pleasing "On the Basis of Sex" focuses on the early achievements in Ginsburg's career. British actress Felicity Jones ("Rogue One," "The Theory of Everything") stars as the young Ginsberg, beginning in 1956, the year the aspiring attorney arrived at Harvard Law School.
Almost immediately, she faces discrimination in the male-dominated culture of the school. At a dinner party hosted by the dean (Sam Waterston), she, along with the eight other women who've entered into the program, is publicly asked by their host to justify her decision to take an academic seat away from a potential male student.
It's tough going, but nonetheless Ginsburg persists. Following the expected biopic beats of our protagonist gamely overcoming adversity, watching Ruth make her way through law school is definitely the least interesting part of the film. But as we gradually move into the 1970s, it focuses on the dynamics of Ruth's relationship with her tax attorney husband, Marty (Armie Hammer). Theirs is a marriage of true equals, and Marty remains tirelessly supportive at every step. As "RBG" also emphasized, the couple are a team in every way.
Even graduating at the top of her class, Ruth finds that no law firm is willing to hire a woman, and she eventually accepts a job as a professor at Rutgers. If she can't affect change herself, she can at least give the next generation the tools they need to get the job done.
From there, the film shifts into a courtroom drama as Marty brings Ruth the case of Charles Moritz (Christian Mulkey), a Denver man caring for his elderly mother, but denied the proper tax credit because of his gender (laws at the time stated that only women could be considered a primary caregiver). It's a case of sex-based discrimination against a man, and Ruth sees its potential to establish a precedent that could be the first step in the methodical dismantling of the entire sexist social order.
The film's screenplay, written with obvious affection by Ginsburg's nephew Daniel Stiepleman, makes efforts to humanize Ginsburg, and Jones's performance reveals a woman whose polite exterior covered a steely determination. She portrays Ginsburg as a brilliant woman who stuck to her principles, but who could be shrewd when necessary. Some of the most moving moments involve her sometimes contentious relationship with her teenage daughter (Cailee Spaeny), who's increasingly drawn to the more radical methods of the women's lib movement and is sometimes bewildered by her mother's desire to change the system from within.
Combined, "RBG" and "On the Basis of Sex" make a more complete portrait of the woman who would become "The Notorious RBG," though neither film quite succeeds at getting into Ruth Ginsburg as a person. I'd love a film that really digs into what makes her tick, or tells us, for example, why it was law that specifically became such a passion for her.
While not as trailblazing or forward-thinking as Ginsburg herself, "On the Basis of Sex" works thanks to an uplifting, earnest tone, Leder's sturdy direction, and grounded performances from Jones and Hammer. Even when sticking to convention, the film ultimately succeeds as an inspirational testament to a real-life hero and the continued significance of her work.