Ruth Bader Ginsburg has gotten a lot of press this year. There was her autobiography, “My Own Words.” There was the piece on “60 Minutes.” There was the documentary “RBG,” which earned raves. There was the hospitalization after she fractured three ribs in a fall. There was the surgery to remove cancerous nodules from her lungs. The latter two added to the worry that she might not live long enough to remain on the Supreme Court until the Trump disaster is over.
Now comes “On The Basis Of Sex,” a movie docudrama about her early career, which set Ginsburg on a path as a legal warrior for women’s rights and gender equality.
It begins with her life as one of very few women admitted to Harvard Law School, where she and her female colleagues were asked by the dean (Sam Waterston), “Why are you at Harvard Law School, taking the place of a man?” She not only proved her place, but became the only woman on the Law Review before moving to Columbia Law School (where she was also the only woman on that school’s Law Review) when her husband, Martin, got a job in New York. Despite those achievements, including finishing at the top of her class, Ruth still faced a city full of law firms that would not hire a female associate. So, she turned towards academia, teaching at Rutgers Law School in New Jersey, with a special focus on gender discrimination.
A decade later, Martin, then a tax lawyer, brought Ruth the case of Charles Moritz, a man who had been denied a deduction by the IRS solely on the basis of his status as an unmarried man. Seeing an opportunity to challenge the law on a grand scale, Ruth agreed to work with Martin on the case, eventually bringing in another legal advocate, Dorothy Kenyon (Kathy Bates), as well as Mel Wulff (Justin Theroux) of the ACLU. Ruth’s intention was not just to win the case for her client, but to set precedent that could be applied to every gender discrimination suit going forward.
Felicity Jones is terrific as Ginsburg, from her Brooklyn accent to her determination and refusal to acquiesce to the status quo. She’s also quite good in her scenes with Armie Hammer (in the only performance of his that I’ve liked) as Martin. Writer Daniel Stiepleman reveals how close the couple was, and how their relationship worked so well. It helps that he’s Martin’s nephew and had direct input from Ruth, who marked up his first drafts with corrections.
As for director Mimi Leder, it’s about time she was allowed back in the big-screen movie chair almost two decades after making “Pay It Forward” and “Deep Impact.” She has shot “On The Basis Of Sex” beautifully and avoided making the Ginsburgs’ story too glossy, while giving Jones a showcase for a brilliant, strong-willed woman’s origin story.
I give “On The Basis Of Sex” an 8.5 out of 10. It will make you hope, even more than before, that RBG remains in good health and on the highest bench for many years to come.