Produced by Robert W. Cort
Directed by Mimi Leder
Written By: Daniel Stiepelman
With: Felicity Jones, Armie Hammer, Justin Theroux, Kathy Bates, Sam Waterston, Cailee Spaeny, Chris Mulkey
It's safe to say that ON THE BASIS OF SEX has the immediate distinction of being the only feature film about a sitting Justice of the Supreme Court. In fact, there's an even more far-fetched distinction: Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg can boast of having both this and the documentary, RBG, come out in the same year --an unlikely record not to be broken soon. If ever.
ON THE BASIS OF SEX, a look at Ginsburg's early career, opens with one of the few clever moments in the movie. It begins with a close-up of feet, men's feet, men striding purposefully and confidently into their Harvard law school orientation in 1956, an army of men suited up, and Ruth, in her jewel-tone dresses, is the equivalent of a blue bird amid the gray owls. But, on top of making the obvious point that she's the lone woman in the crowd, it also depicts figuratively what she's up against. It's a sea of conformity, of tradition, of conservative entrenched men, and it beautifully conveys the lay of the land.
Harvard had only begun to allow women in its law school a few years earlier, and Ruth was one of only nine women in her class of five hundred. The movie includes an oft-told episode of the dean of the law school asking Ruth to justify taking the place that would have gone to a man--to which she demurely replied that, married, she hoped to better understand and help her husband Marty Ginsburg, who would go on to become a prominent tax lawyer. (And, lest anyone feel momentarily unfamiliar in the grandeur of the Harvard law classes, there is a quizzing on the exact same Hawkins v. McGee case of a skin graft gone wrong that we were taught in the 1973 film THE PAPER CHASE.)
Ruth did more than hold her own. She was already excelling in her classes. And, along with her school workload, she had a young child at home. And, along with school and motherhood, with the devastating news that her husband Marty was diagnosed with cancer, she took on the burden of his classes as well as her own.
They moved to New York, following Marty's job offer, but no law firm wanted to hire a woman. ("A woman, a mother, and a Jew to boot," muses one lawyer.) Stymied for the moment, she accepted a professorship at Rutgers. But then a path opened.
Marty comes across a tax case that, for Ruth, would provide a wedge to start working on gender discrimination issues--something that wasn't even on the legal radar at the time. In Colorado, Charles Moritz had been denied tax benefits for caregiving that would have been due a woman, and Ruth persuades him, and the American Civil Liberties Union, to pursue a just resolution. This will, of course, launch her off on her litigation career, her path of shepherding small changes progressing toward a larger goal of equal rights for women.
The success of ON THE BASIS OF SEX is primarily dependent on the lead performance of Felicity Jones, and it's a wonderful fit. She has enough of a resemblance to remind us what a lovely young woman Ruth was at the time, and she gives a nuanced and varied performance to convey a real person. Armie Hammer is almost saintly as her charmingly uxorious and endearingly supportive spouse (and household cook), Justin Theroux is the bristlingly energetic ACLU fireball, but overall the real showcase is Jones as the notorious RBG.
Director Mimi Leder had not done a theatrical feature in a decade, since the 2009 direct-to-DVD flop, THICK AS THIEVES, and one wonders if she became attached to this project simply because the studio may have felt it needed to be handed over to a woman. It's a competent job, but it feels like a dutiful job, not conveying any loving intensity, not elevating this into something more stirring. Perhaps that accounts for some distracting minor lapses. Are we to believe that Ruth really was wearing the exact same kind of shoes over three decades? Are we to believe that they really were using 21st century vulgarities in the 1970s?
The script, by Daniel Stiepelman, whose first feature this is, wisely has a narrow focus on this early period with the one pivotal case, and does an excellent job with the daunting task of covering a lot of ground. As he happens to be Ginsburg's nephew, though, he may have been hampered by his laudable resolution to be diligently accurate, and this might have benefitted from a defter writer like Aaron Sorkin, who might have infused it with some sparkle.
ON THE BASIS OF SEX does a good service as a reminder that although some of Ginsburg's points may have startled the legal world at the time, she was not overall the vociferous liberal firebrand that many imagine, but a jurist whose quiet, incremental steps mirrored her quiet demure manner. Equally important, it's a reminder that so much now taken for granted only came about historically through the long-term perseverance. More generally, it is also broadly admirable for its incidental glimpses of what movies rarely show: serious people hard at work at their desks, working into the evening, working with dedication and expertise, working as a normal on-going part of everyday life.
Unfortunately, like the documentary, it fails to enlighten about the true core mystery of RBG. We're left to wonder, still: How did Ruth Bader Ginsburg, who in her own way embodies a realistic version of a super-hero, manage these extraordinary academic and professional feats, achieve such excellence, while still having a family life? It's still astonishing. ************************************************************************************************************** SPECIAL CONTRIBUTING EDITOR DAVID ROSLER:
While Suzanna wrote a wonderful review expressing her own opinion of both Ginsberg and the semi-fictionalized docudrama of Gingsberg's personal accomplishments, it is noteworthy to note that since Ginsberg is a political figure used for propaganda purposes by both sides of the political fence (FIR is not and never shall be a political mouthpiece; it was established in 1919 for exactly the opposite purpose), we found in collecting photographs from the movie that it is already being used for political purposes. To wit, Ginsberg's appearance is being used by the right to portray Ginsberg as a nasty old monster. By the same token, Newsweek and other media have been shown to continually misrepresent Republicans, altering photos of those on the political right with selective photo alterations. Now It appears someone on the left (the Newsweek side) is now going the other direction to make Ginsberg look better and more specifically, the Ginsberg in the movie look younger, which indicates an extreme sensitivity of politicos on the left about Ginsberg's appearance. We found this: Here is a still from the movie in which expert aging makeup was applied to the actress ij portraying Ginsberg as aging but attractive at that point in her life.
We discovered this photoshop floating around with the rest of the movie photos. Note the heavy retouching work. This kind of thing is only done for propaganda purposes.
This kind of thing is very unsettling in a free society and indicates players with very deep pockets are manipulating perceptions of the population for the 2020 elections outside of normal, political, on-their-own-merits political discussions. Doubtless fans of Ginsberg would feel very put-upon if we pulled a "Reverse-Newsweek" approach and put the following actual, untouched photo of Ginsberg speaking at a function at the top of this review.
Or this one of Ginsberg asleep during a Presidential State-of-the-Union address:
JUST A SOBERING REMINDER THAT CINEMA IS AN ART FORM, and FIR celebrates it as such, not film as an influence tool for politics; the medium shouldn't be female filmmaker Leni Riefenstahl 's "Triumph of the Will", a cinematic manipulation masterpiece that unfortunately helped put Hitler into power or other "voices of conscience" which are only one person's idea of good and evil pretending to speak for all using the most manipulative medium known to humankind.
Let's keep art and politics separate, as it should be. ~ David Rosler