While other films have garnered heavy award season buzz one movie that has been quietly expanded under the radar that has intrigued me for the past few months is the Ruth Bader Ginsberg biopic “On the Basis of Sex”. More than many Ginsburg ‘s accomplishments and impact are certainly very deserving of the Hollywood treatment and I was genuinely excited to see what this project had to offer. With a focus on one of the most prominent female judges and lawyers in American history as well as the second ever female Supreme Court judge, the makes of “On the Basis of Sex” had a lot riding on their shoulders to successfully honor such an iconic figure. So does it do right by the famed justice and pop culture icon? Let’s take a look. This is my review of “On the Basis of Sex”.
“On the Basis of Sex” stars Felicity Jones as Ruth Bader Ginsberg and explores her early years, starting with her time at Harvard studying law alongside her loving husband Martin D. Ginsburg (Armie Hammer). Ruth endures several roadblocks, including relocating to Columbia University to suit her husband’s career, being denied attorney positions because of her gender and eventually teaching a new generation of women about gender discrimination at Rutgers. When Martin comes across the case of Charles Moritz, a man denied a tax deduction for his mother’s nursing care because he is a bachelor, the Ginsburgs seize the opportunity to help overturn the court’s decision arguing that Moritz was denied based on his gender, an argument that, if successful, would change the interpretation the Constitution and American law. Joined by the ACLU and its leader Mel Wolf (Justin Theroux) the Ginsburgs set out to argue a case that would go on to help define discrimination on the basis of sex.
Probably the best thing about this movie is the performances. There are a lot of great characters presented in this picture, most if not all based on real-life figures. Felicity Jones leads the pack with one of her best performances to date in my opinion as Ruth Bader Ginsburg and while there were some obvious creative liberties taken in Ginsburg’s personality Jones still manages to capture the passion and charisma of this firecracker of a woman who became a pop culture phenomenon. She’s supported by Armie Hammer as Ruth’s husband Martin and both performers represent what is, according to people close to the family, a very accurate representation of the love these two shared in their marriage. Martin is successful but supportive and level headed under pressures, the opposite of Ruth, so as the story plays out it’s fun to watch them contrast and complement each other perfectly. I loved these performances. They’re charming, fun, and loaded with personality and spunk. With the support of equally committed actors like Justin Theroux, Kathy Bates and Cailee Spaeny I actually think it’s kind of criminal that no one from this movie earned an awards nomination because these are truly awesome performances that bring literal life and energy to an inspiring biography and support Ginsburg’s own statements that she didn’t do what she did alone.
Aside from the cast there’s a lot I loved about this film. The pacing, the tone, the script, it all works. Right from the get-go there’s a certain energy about this. film. It draws you in and hits you constantly with examples of sexism of the time to sell the theme of female empowerment that permeates the screenplay. With that in mind, I never once felt like “On the Basis of Sex” was pandering or preachy. It does have a lot to say, but I feel like “On the Basis of Sex” finds a nice balance of in-your-face revelations and more subtle references to its theme and thanks to several strong male characters, including Ruth’s husband Martin, it never fully demonizes men either. I thought in many ways this movie was fairy balanced showing how men who were against the sexual discrimination argument were impacted by the culture of the times while never trying too hard to glorify Ruth as some sort of goddess. She’s just a flawed woman with aspirations looking to smash through a wall that years of cultural conformity had built.
There is quite a bit of creative license used in this film but “On the Basis of Sex” is also surprisingly accurate, at least according to those close to the Ginsburgs. There are some glaring alternations to Ginburg’s personality, capabilities and confidence that feel counterproductive to representing her as the strong woman she is. These creative decisions, clearly done to build the drama, could rub some the wrong way, but I found most of these add-ons serve to build on the narrative and don’t necessarily detract from the quality of the story or the historical facts. I think the main problem is that people could very well argue the use of creative license waters down Ruth’s intelligence or her ability to practice law too much drawing into question her abilities in situations where she was proven to be more confident and capable than she appears on screen. When you add something unique to a real-life story you have to be careful not to leave to much open for interpretation or you risk compromising the subject. For me the creative choices in “On the Basis of Sex” do build on the story, but I have to acknowledge how these changes can be interpreted as more detrimental to Ruth than buildign on her legacy.
Still I can’t stress enough how entertaining this movie was for me. I felt the stakes and I even found myself talking under by breath trying to cheer Ginsburg on in her endeavors. “On the Basis of Sex” might lack a bit of imagination or originality, but it rises above obvious clichés to turn Ginsburg’s worthy legacy into a nicely packaged two hours of entertainment. It does embrace a few too many clichés to get its point across, which some may find hard to forgive, but the key to any good film when it comes to clichés is how well can you hide them. “On the Basis of Sex” hides them well feeling fresh even when its formulaic and tense even when it’s predictable. While I admit that maybe Ginsburg deserved something a little more grand than the mainstream feel of this film “On the Basis of Sex” offers enough to serve as a worthy reminder of her awesome legacy and accomplishment even before serving in the Supreme Court and is sacrifices little to get the job done properly even with the help of creative liberties.
With a delightful presentation, an invested and charismatic cast and a worthy story to tell “On the Basis of Sex” may take some liberties when interpreting the legacy of Ruth Bader Ginsburg but for the most part it proves to be a worthy interpretation of her accomplishments that draws you in and never lets go. I do agree this iconic figure probably deserved something a little bigger in scale, but whether it’s the charm of Felicity Jones and Armie Hammer or the intrigue of the story there’s still plenty to enjoy and appreciate about this film. Its biggest flaw lies not with how it depicts history but in how it depicts events that never actually occurred. The creative license is improperly managed to the point where it leaves open holes for fair criticism of how “On the Basis of Sex” alters the personality, accomplishments and capabilities of Ginsburg. All the same “On the Basis of Sex” avoids pretentiousness while getting its point across and, for the most part, successfully explores a legendary woman who is probably one of the most worthy film subjects of the last decade. It is, to put it bluntly, the first great film of 2019 in my humble opinion.