On the Basis of Sex stars Felicity Jones in the life story of sitting Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg. We join the life of Ruth Bader Ginsburg as she became one of the first classes at Harvard to allow women, all the way back in 1954. Mrs Ginsburg was already married to her beloved husband, Martin (Armie Hammer) and was eager to start a family all while navigating the sexist and incredibly demanding schedule of a Harvard Law student.
As if her life weren’t difficult enough, in short order, Ruth becomes a mother and her husband develops testicular cancer and cannot attend his own Harvard law classes. So, Ruth attends and takes notes in Martin’s classes, attends her own, writes papers for herself while taking dictation from Martin for his coursework and while the two are raising their baby daughter. To say this woman was driven and brilliant is quite the understatement.
When Martin graduates and accepts a position at a high powered New York City law firm, Ruth completes her Harvard coursework while also attending classes at Columbia to be close to her husband. She then struggles to find a law firm that will hire her despite graduating at the top of her class. Ruth ends up accepting a teaching position at Rutgers where she finds herself at the center of a cultural revolution as her students are taking to the streets to demand social change.
Inspired in part by her students and by her daughter, Jane (Cailee Spaeny), Ruth finds a lawsuit that challenges the status quo in a way that will reverberate through the years in the battle against sexism. A Colorado man was denied a caregivers tax break because only women were allowed to be caretakers to family members who were incapacitated by illness. If Ruth can prove that the tax law is discriminatory against a man, it could create a precedent that could knock down dozens of laws that give different rights to men than to women.
On the Basis of Sex was directed by Mimi Leder, a solid pro director who brings a strong polish to this otherwise very straightforward biopic. There is certainly a remarkable amount of hero worshipping going on but it’s not entirely unearned. As played by Felicity Jones, Ruth Bader Ginsburg is some kind of real-life superhero, a rebuke to anyone who says you can’t have it all. Top of her class, married, two kids, and one of the most notable legal careers of modern American history. Indeed, that is heroic.
If I have any issues with On the Basis of Sex, it’s with the compressed timeline of the film. At times, because of the editing and the odd transitions, it can be difficult to track where we are in time. The film employs time jumps to get to the juicier parts of Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s life but in that, we have a moment where she goes from having one child to suddenly having a toddler son in such an abrupt fashion that you might miss a scene just catching up to where we are in time.
On the Basis of Sex is just a tad sloppy here in there from a structural standpoint but that’s a relatively minor issue. It’s one of those things that separates a good movie from a great movie. On the Basis of Sex is quite a good movie in my estimation but it’s not great. Leder’s approach to the life of Ginsburg is just a little too antiseptic. I am not asking for there to be dirt or grit, but some will find the level of hero worship approaching hagiography.
On the Basis of Sex is the second movie of 2018 dedicated to the life of Ruth Bader Ginsburg. The other is a more necessary and comprehensive documentary called RBG. That film does render On the Basis of Sex a tad redundant. While On the Basis of Sex is kept to a specific portion of Ginsburg’s life and that gives it at least a different focus, RBG’s comprehensiveness makes it the far more essential portrait.
On the Basis of Sex is a sturdy and involving drama, a little loose in the editing but certainly not a bad movie. The lead performance from Felicity Jones is energetic, intelligent and engaging and the supporting cast is solid, with Armie Hammer as the standout as Martin Ginsburg, an unsung hero who supported his wife every step of her journey, even as every other man in her life created new barriers to her success.
If you had to choose one movie on the life of Ruth Bader Ginsburg, RBG is far more essential but On the Basis of Sex is strong enough that I can recommend it.