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Ruth Bader Ginsberg is a true icon. There are few women in history who have done more for gender equality at such a high level, and her legacy will forever be as a world-changer. She is a remarkable and inspirational figure, and that status was given appropriate big screen attention in 2018 with both a documentary, Betsy West and Julie Cohen's RBG, and a narrative feature, Mimi Leder's On The Basis Of Sex. But while the former did an awesome job covering the incredible scope and span of Ginsberg's life and career, sparked by a great, fun energy, the latter doesn't quite reach the same heights, coalescing as simply a solid and serviceable biopic, but not really anything special.
Based on an original screenplay by Daniel Stiepleman -- who happens to be Ruth Bader Ginsberg's nephew -- On The Basis Of Sex primarily centers on the early years of its subject's career, making her way through law school and then arguing one of the most significant cases of her early years as lawyer: 1972's Moritz v. Commissioner Of Internal Revenue.
Despite facing some rather extreme sexism from professors and department heads, not to mention raising an infant daughter and helping her husband, Martin (Armie Hammer), continue his law studies following a cancer diagnosis, Ginsberg (Felicity Jones) begins the story successfully graduating at the top of her class -- but unable to find work because no firm takes her seriously due to her gender. This rejection leads to a short-lived teaching career, becoming a professor at Rutgers Law School, but also the discovery of a certain niche: the relationship between the law and gender discrimination.
Her work in this area eventually leads to her discovering the story of Charles Moritz (Chris Mulkey), a single man in Denver, Colorado who finds himself unable to receive a tax deduction for nursing care for his mother because the code was specifically created for women, with the assumption that they take care of the house and family while men work. Understanding the extra difficulties that would come with trying to argue against gender bias with a female plaintiff, Ginsberg takes on the case in an attempt to establish an important precedent that would allow for the challenging of any standing law that discriminates on the basis of sex.
It's a challenging legal road to tread, particularly with "allies" like the ACLU's Mel Wulf (Justin Theroux) -- a sexist in his own right working on Ruth Bader Ginsberg's team -- but with a real understanding of society's evolution, and great determination she makes her case to the Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals, and begins a career that would eventually see her start to make significant changes in the American legal system, and set her on a path to the Supreme Court.
There is no denying the significance of the subject matter here, which is both well performed and well shot, but it's also not exactly material that pops, or is super engaging. It's certainly rough to see the unabashed sexism that Ruth Bader Ginsberg had to deal with on a daily basis, and it's effectively jarring, and there is certainly real passion exhibited for the cause -- but the film does also somewhat suffer just from the nature of the story on which it chooses to focus. It's easy to understand why this particular point in Ginsberg's life was chosen for highlighting, as it was a landmark case that jumpstarted her career, but there is also very good reason why most courtroom dramas don't center on legal arguments about the tax code.
What helps to elevate the material is a wide collection of impressive performances from the movie's talented ensemble, with Felicity Jones being the standout that she should be. On The Basis Of Sex opens with her as one of nine women in a Harvard Law School class of about 500, and but she immediately demonstrates Ginsberg's renowned strength of character, and it's fortitude that is prominently on display through Jones' entire performance.
She has a great back up system as well, though, including the affable and ever-supportive Marty -- who Armie Hammer plays with every ounce of his charm. And even though there are some pretty vile things spilling out of their mouths at a regular rate throughout the film, credit must also be given to Justin Theroux and Sam Waterston (as the dean of Harvard Law) for fully and effectively demonstrating the very real discrimination that Ginsberg had to fight so hard against.
Mimi Leder and the various production departments also deserve notice, as On The Basis Of Sex is certainly aesthetically beautiful -- from its elegant period production design and costuming, to the lush lighting and use of contrast to illuminate deep colors. In that way it's transportive, as you are certainly enveloped in the setting when you're not fully enveloped in the story, and it's also highlighted some wonderful scene construction, allowing Ruth Bader Ginsberg's presence to shine throughout in a noticeably mostly male-dominated world.
On The Basis Of Sex is surely a film that deserved to be made, and it is absolutely a great education about one of the most influential figures of the late 20th and early 21st centuries. At the same time, however, it's not a movie that ever really blows you back -- particularly if it's a story with which you are already familiar. It's worth seeing for the history and the performances, but is never as brilliant as its central subject.