Film Review – On Basis of Sex

Directed: Mimi Leder

Writer: Daniel Stiepleman

Starring: Felicity Jones, Armie Hammer, Justin Theroux 

Tagline: “It was a man’s world. So she changed it”

Trivia: Even though she pleaded with the dean, Ginsburg went and earned her law degree from Columbia, not Harvard

This time it’s personal. Ruth Ginsburg is one of my heroes, she’s been a role model for me as long as I remember myself and from the moment I identified myself as a feminist. So getting two films in the same year about her was a real treat.

What I loved about this movie was that it wasn’t trying to compete with the documentary that came out in the same year (RGB).

This is not a documentary that is trying to cover her life, but like in a good drama it focuses on only two elements that made her who she is.

On the Basis of Sex might not offer any new information about RBG that is not already found in the recent documentary. However, at its best, it has a dramatic quality that documentaries lack.

Felicity Jones plays the real-life US Supreme Court justice in a drama about her personal struggle against injustice and prejudice.

RBG, the well-crafted documentary capably covers Justice Ginsburg’s life from schoolgirl to the Supreme Court.

Wisely, On the Basis of Sex focuses on just two key elements: her wonderfully supportive marriage to the late tax attorney, Martin Ginsburg (Armie Hammer) and the one case they argued together, a landmark in outlawing discrimination “on the basis of sex.”

That’s good writing (by Justice Ginsburg’s nephew, Daniel Stiepleman) to know on what to focus to be able to make an interesting drama from a life span of over 80 years.

In its own way, On the Basis of Sex is as predictable as any superhero movie. Ruth’s ultimate triumph against overwhelming odds is never in any doubt at all.

She doesn’t eat spinach. She isn’t exposed to some radioactive drug that gives her magical abilities. Her secret powers come from studying and from always being the best-prepared student in the classroom or counsel in the court.

Director, Mimi Leder’s, achievement is to have made such a rousing drama from such a dry storyline.

I found having Mimi Leder directing the movie a significant element for the message of the movie. One might say that Mimi Leder, has claimed an affinity with Ginsburg’s life. As one of the only women in Hollywood to reach the A-list and being a flag-waver for gender equality in her own right.

If ever there was a great opening image that sums up a whole movie is the opening shot of On The Basis of Sex opening song “Ten Thousand Men of Harvard.” And that is more or less what you see onscreen: a parade of mostly pale males in dark suits marching through Cambridge.

In their midst is Ruth Bader Ginsburg, a first-year law student and one of only nine women (out of nearly 500 students) in her class. The contrast between the dark suits and her blue dress is impeccable.

We get to see even more of what made her so unique in the way she answers the humiliating questioning at the “welcome” dinner by Dean Erwin Griswold (Sam Waterston) of why is she deserving a place in Harvard instead of another male, which is both diplomatic and sarcastic – “to be a better wife for my husband who is a second year student”.

Same tactic might be in the way she chose her case to fight gender inequality by representing Charles Moritz (Chris Mulkey), a Colorado man denied a tax benefit routinely given to women caring for family members. Same logic and cool mind to represent the obvious gender inequality.

If you’re looking for a hyper-emotional period piece full of tears and nice suits, you’ll be disappointed. 

On The Basis Of Sex is an astonishingly stiff-upper-lipped drama about proactive people working hard to achieve great things. It’s remarkably unsentimental, which feels correct because it is a film about the importance of reason and analysis to help push through global change alongside protest and changes in social views.

It’s a film that makes it clear that equality of any kind is not true equality if it doesn’t count for everyone, a quietly powerful view of its own.

On the Basis of Sex may leave you wanting more — more history, more personality, more complicated emotion, more ideological argument but it doesn’t necessarily count against it.

Historical narratives are best when they pique curiosity as well as satisfy it, and this one is too careful to proclaim its own inclusiveness. It knows that it’s a piece of a larger story, one that is very much unfinished.

Verdict 4.5/5 Stars in my book

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