Film Review – On the Basis of Sex
On the Basis of Sex
Ruth Bader Ginsburg has lived an exceptional life. Born to Russian-Jewish immigrants in Brooklyn, New York (as Joan Ruth Bader), Ginsburg studied at Cornell, attended Harvard, and earned her law degree at Columbia. She spent much of her career focused on gender equality and women’s rights, arguing (and winning) many cases brought forth to the U.S. Supreme Court. In 1993, President Bill Clinton appointed Ginsburg as a nominee for Associate Justice on the very same Supreme Court, which she accepted and has served on until this very day. During that time, she gained pop cultural status under the nickname “The Notorious R.B.G.”
It goes without saying that Ginsburg is an extraordinary character whose work went against the assumptions of – not only what it means to be a woman in America – but what it means to be a woman working in a field (still) dominated by men. Her story is a fascinating tale of perseverance and intelligence. It’s too bad that the film based on her life, On the Basis of Sex (2018), lets her down with a mundane, conventional approach at telling that story. This is a biopic that we’ve seen far too many times before, stuck in neutral while it weaves through a person’s life like a two-hour highlight reel.
I’m certain that director Mimi Leder and writer Daniel Stiepleman have the utmost respect and admiration for Ginsburg, we sense it throughout the narrative. But as we travel through time (the story starts at Ginsburg’s entrance into Harvard and ends with her first big gender discrimination case), the events of her life skim by without having any kind of significant dramatic weight. For example: one of the constants of Ginsburg (Felicity Jones) was the relationship she had with her husband Marty (Armie Hammer), whom she met in college. When Marty was diagnosed with cancer at an early age, the event shook them, and yet it plays out as a mere blip with no emotional resonance.
The pacing is at a rush, painting large brushstrokes and skipping on the details. We’re told how Ginsburg graduated at the top of her class, has a keen understanding of the law and how it must adapt to the changing times, but we never see the effort she put to get there. We fly past her education, and the years she spent as a professor at Rutgers is a mere afterthought. The real Ginsburg (who is now well into her 80s) is a renowned workaholic – known to stay up until the early morning with her nose in case files – to the point that Marty had to remind her when to eat or sleep. We never get that impression from the film version of her.
Felicity Jones does her best with her performance, but she’s stuck in a narrative that forces her to be a typical biopic character. The dynamic Ginsburg shares with her daughter (Cailee Spaeny) plays like Lifetime Movie of The Week: at odds one moment and then loving and supportive the next. By the time we get to her first major case of gender inequality – arguing a tax law that prevented a non-married man the means to care for his ailing mother – Jones (and the production) is in full on Cliché Courtroom Drama Mode, stock full of big speeches backed by a sentimental score cluing us in on how important this all is as though we didn’t already know.
Perhaps the biggest letdown is that the filmmakers never touch upon Ginsburg’s service as a Supreme Court Justice, which may arguably be the most interesting era of her life. Her forceful liberal stances, her influence on important cases including her numerous dissents, her surprising friendship with the staunchly conservative Judge, Antonin Scalia, her love for and involvement in the opera, and her influence on the millennial generation – these are all absorbing facets of her character that are worth delving into. And yet, Leder and Stiepleman decide to push this all aside in favor for the same old kind of underdog tale. It’s strange really; given that the themes of sex are just as timely now as they have ever been, that the resulting product feels outdated.
It’s even more unfortunate that the film – which was reportedly stuck in limbo for years – has come out the same year as the documentary, RBG (2018). RBG takes a far better look at who Ginsburg was and is, and how much her work has played a role in the modern cultural landscape. It’s an engrossing and surprisingly touching examination of Ginsburg, maybe because we get to see the real person instead of a glossy recreation. RBG is one of the better docs of the year, whereas On the Basis of Sex is one of the more forgettable experiences you’ll have at the theater.
If it sounds like I’m being tough toward On the Basis of Sex, it’s because when you have a person this important, who has meant so much to countless people, they deserve a film that really gets to the heart who they are. The best biopics don’t simply rattle off statistics or a laundry list of accomplishments, they dig deeper to uncover the person behind the icon. That humanistic approach allows us to step into their shoes, to make us understand that any regular person is able to accomplish great things if they put their minds to it. This film did not do that.