Movie Review – On the Basis of Sex
Editor’s note: The views and opinions expressed in this review are solely those of Marlon Wallace and do not necessarily reflect the views and opinions of WBOC.
There have been several films about famous Supreme Court cases, but it’s rare that we get a film that is about a specific Supreme Court justice, a specific real-life justice. The Magnificent Yankee (1950) was about Oliver Wendell Holmes. HBO’s Confirmation (2016) was about Clarence Thomas. Marshall (2017) was about the first African-American justice. Chief Justice Earl Warren has been portrayed in several films, but there has never been a narrative that focused solely on him. Ditto for some of the other chief justices. Not every justice has the most interesting life, but some obvious biopics would be one on Sandra Day O’Connor, the first female justice on the Supreme Court, so it begs the question of why this film. Why do a film about Ruth Bader Ginsburg, the second female justice on the Supreme court?
The answer could be because of Ginsburg’s rise to fame and prominence over the past decade or so. She really became a pop culture icon just prior to the 2016 election. Internet sites were dedicated to her. All kinds of memorabilia were created in honor of her. Even media was made in tribute to her, including a recurring skit on Saturday Night Live that’s all about her. A documentary about Ginsburg was even released called RBG (2018). Participant Media produced the film and they always do political or politically-adjacent stories. I imagine a studio like Focus Features, which is distributing this film, would see all that pop culture stuff as justification for funding this project because Focus Features thought it could sell Ginsburg as a movie.
Felicity Jones (Rogue One: A Star Wars Story and The Theory of Everything) stars as Ruth Bader Ginsburg. She’s a Jewish girl from Brooklyn, New York. The movie begins in the fall of 1956 when Ruth is starting her attendance at Harvard Law School. She is one of only a handful women in a class of hundreds of men. Despite being at the top of her class and knowing more than most of the men there, professors virtually ignore her and the Dean of Harvard Law talks down to her and speaks very dismissively of her. It’s the first example of gender bigotry and gender discrimination, which she then spends the next few decades fighting. She of course has a lot of spunk, but she’s also a very studious person. It’s not that she isn’t personable, but she is more erudite and didactic.
Armie Hammer (Call Me By Your Name and The Lone Ranger) co-stars as Martin Ginsburg, a fellow law student whom she married prior to Harvard and with whom she has a daughter. He’s tall and handsome. He’s very gregarious and charming. He contrasts with Ruth in that he isn’t as didactic. He’s not didactic at all. He’s a bit of a bon vivant, the guy that everyone gravitates toward. He doesn’t have to struggle in social situations the way Ruth does. He’s allowed to be winsome in a way that she can’t. He’s taken down a bit after he’s diagnosed with cancer during Ruth’s first year at Harvard. After she supported him during his illness doing his classwork and homework for him, he then for the rest of the movie is very supportive of her becoming the veritable “housewife,” cooking and cleaning.
Ruth and Martin move back to New York City when Martin gets a job as a tax lawyer in a Manhattan firm. Ruth attempts to get a job in a law firm too, but she again faces gender discrimination. She instead takes a teaching job at Rutgers University where she became a fan of Dorothy Kenyon, played by Kathy Bates (Primary Colors and Misery). Dorothy was a lawyer who worked for the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) who pushed for equal rights. When Martin discovers a tax law case that is an example of gender discrimination, he gives it to Ruth. She then takes it to Dorothy and the ACLU, hoping that it can be a perfect appeals case to start the ball rolling on undoing gender discrimination laws, which exist all across the country.
From that point forward, this film becomes a legal drama. It might not be as regarded as some of the great legal dramas of the past century, such as 12 Angry Men (1957), Witness for the Prosecution (1957), Inherit the Wind (1960), Judgment at Nuremberg (1961), To Kill a Mockingbird (1962), Kramer vs. Kramer (1979), The Verdict (1982), The Accused (1988), A Few Good Men (1992), Philadelphia (1993), Disclosure (1994), The Client (1994), Primal Fear (1996) and Amistad (1997). However, I feel as though this film absolutely belongs to be added to this list.
Jack Reynor (Detroit and Transformers: Age of Extinction) plays Jim Bozarth, the lawyer in the Department of Justice who represents the IRS in the case that Ruth files. His arguments or performance in the courtroom are well-written and engaging enough that he could be comparable to similar characters in those aforementioned films. He’s comparable to Kevin Bacon in A Few Good Men or Mary Steenburgen in Philadelphia. Reynor might not be as good an actor as those two, but his character is well rendered enough to hold up to those similar characters.
Cailee Spaeny (Bad Times at the El Royale and Pacific Rim: Uprising) plays Jane Ginsburg, the teenage daughter to Ruth and Martin. She’s a feminist that’s more of an activist. Instead of using books and courtrooms, Jane is one that’s more about taking to the streets. She gets involved in protests and raising her voice outside. She’s bolder that way than her mother. As such, she butt heads with Ruth and gets into arguments. Jane is smart though. She’s street smart and book smart. She quotes To Kill a Mockingbird for example, not the film but the novel by Harper Lee. She has a passion that she thinks her mom doesn’t have.
One of the questions of the film is how Ruth’s demeanor and way of approaching the law will translate once she actually gets into a courtroom. From the time that she leaves law school to the time that she asks to argue this tax case against Jim, we’re led to believe she’s never argued in court before. She never actually practiced law, mostly because of gender discrimination. So, it’s a matter of whether she can give a good oral argument. Throughout the film, we see that she’s capable of making a legal argument on paper, but can she do it in person? It’s a matter of whether or not she should take it to court and if it would be better if she settle, which is a similar dilemma as Paul Newman in The Verdict or even Tom Cruise in A Few Good Men.
Unlike all the aforementioned, legal dramas, this one was directed by a woman. Mimi Leder has directed some features, but she’s known more for her television work. She’s been nominated for multiple Emmy Awards for shows like China Beach, ER and The West Wing. Those shows have cinematic qualities to them at times, but there’s nothing that’s so inherently cinematic about what Leder does here. Yet, her grasp of the characters and landing the small and even big dramatic moments are things that she does incredibly well.
Rated PG-13 for some language and suggestive content.
Running Time: 2 hrs.