If you’ve led a full existence, you might receive a lifetime achievement award before you die. If you’ve gained fame or wielded influence, you might also be immortalized with a movie. But if you’re Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, you get two movies, both in the same year.
On the Basis of Sex, directed by Mimi Leder and starring Felicity Jones and Armie Hammer, comes after RBG, the documentary that received critical acclaim last spring. Though this new version of Ginsburg’s early life isn’t quite as good as the doc, the two films form a nice, if brief, cinematic compendium covering an extraordinary woman.
Leder (The Peacemaker, Pay it Forward), using a script by Daniel Stiepleman, focuses on Ginsburg’s early life, specifically her years at Harvard in the late 1950s through her first gender-discrimination court case (Moritz v. Commissioner of Internal Revenue) in the early 1970s. This narrow focus creates a tight film, but it’s also an odd choice, as the case was not argued in front of the Supreme Court and didn’t focus on a woman. Instead, Ginsburg argued tax law in front of the Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals on behalf of a male client. But, ultimately, these scenes allow us to appreciate Ginsburg’s judicial and moral philosophies while exposing us to legal details that lend the production authenticity, especially because Ginsburg herself worked with the filmmakers to get the details right.
The movie is certainly a liberal crowd-pleaser, but would it stand up to scrutiny if the subject were not Ginsburg but, say, Antonin Scalia or Brett Kavanaugh? (OK, maybe not Kavanaugh, but you get where I’m going.) In other words, is the craft worthy of the content? Somewhat.
As Ruth and her husband, Jones and Hammer again prove their acting chops, cultivating nuanced, sensitive portrayals from occasionally heavy-handed dialogue and clichéd situations. Jones gives a particularly sympathetic performance and even bears a striking resemblance to the young Ruth. She also enjoys good chemistry with both Hammer and Justin Theroux (Mulholland Drive), who plays an ACLU organizer. Sam Waterston is also somewhat effective as the closest thing the film has to an antagonist, but Kathy Bates (as a civil-liberties lawyer) and Stephen Root (as a crusty law professor) are miscast and distracting.
On the Basis of Sex is at its best when it dispassionately weaves its story of an iconic American who was once told, “Women are too emotional to be lawyers.” But it’s at its worst when it cloyingly encourages us to cheer – silently, of course – for Ginsburg. Thankfully, the best moments outshine the worst. And though the film, unlike its subject, is neither exceptional nor surprising, this juror is returning a thumbs-up verdict.
With Aquaman still swallowing the box office and a host of other holiday films competing for your dollar, it’s unlikely On the Basis of Sex will be in cinemas long. But if it is, justice will have been served.