Film Review: ‘On the Basis of Sex’


One very interesting thing about Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s nomination to the Supreme Court in 1993 is, for most people, that was the moment she began to exist.

This icon of feminism and femininity has spent her 25 years on the court championing the rights of the under-served and underprivileged. But she is also very private, never wanting to draw attention to herself. Which means that most of us don’t know much about the woman who works so hard on our behalf.

And now comes On the Basis of Sex, a film that focuses on the only case Ruth Bader Ginsburg (Felicity Jones) argued alongside her husband, Martin Ginsburg (Armie Hammer). Opening on their years at Harvard, Marty was one year ahead of Ruth. The story touches on Marty’s early cancer diagnosis, in which Ruth balances caring for her husband’s daily needs, attending both her and his law classes, and motherhood. These early scenes are a perfect demonstration of why these stories demand to be told by women. Director Mimi Leder doesn’t present Ruth as a martyr, or spend lingering moments on building her up as a hero. And she doesn’t waste a moment on Ruth feeling sorry for herself or her young family. Instead, she does what women do. She just keeps going.

Jones and Hammer are great together, and in these early moments we see why. Their natural chemistry binds them as a compelling power couple. We don’t need to see them fall in love, because the more interesting part of their story is simply that they are. They are a team, ready to face the world together. As tough a concept as this is for some to grasp in 2018, it was downright revolutionary in 1958. And just like any perfectly matched pair, they only get better when the story moves forward ten or so years to 1970, and to the case that really paints the picture of who the Ginsburgs were and are. Moretz v. Commissioner for Internal Revenue.

It was at Martin Ginsburg’s funeral in 2010 that his nephew, Daniel Stiepleman, first heard of this case and wanted to know more. His own research led him to the door of his Aunt Ruth, where he told her that he wanted to write a movie about her and Uncle Marty. As Stiepleman tells it, she said, “Well, if that’s what you want to do with your time.”

The resulting film is a deft portrait not of a woman, but of a marriage. While Jones is definitely the lead, this is not simply a biopic of Ruth Bader Ginsburg. This is a story of Ruth and Martin. Of The Ginsburgs. Ruth is the hero, but she was able to be because she had in Marty one ultimate supportive spouse. He isn’t simply the wife on the phone, or waiting by the radio for news. He cooks dinner and co-parents their children and knows when to defend her and when to step back. And, likewise, Ruth is an equally ultimate supportive spouse, working hard for her family, co-parenting their children, uprooting their life when its in the interest of his career. Cinema needs more of these partnerships.

Cailee Spaeny is Jane, the Ginsburgs’ teenage daughter. Making her theatrical debut in 2018 with three very different films, Spaeny is a star in the making. Her natural charm makes her an ideal choice for the spunky daughter of equal rights advocates. Justin Theroux is likewise charming as Mel Wulff, an ACLU lawyer who is both a friend and foe.

On the Basis of Sex is an essential film to cap off what has been a banner year for films by and about women. Mimi Leder knows how to tap into the humanity of people. She brings out emotions and heart, thus giving us a complete portrait of the central characters. And it inspires a desire to know every more about the woman that would eventually be lovingly referred to as the Notorious RBG.

See this in a theater if you can. Relish in the triumph of women and womanhood. Bask in this call to arms. Fall in love with Ruth Bader Ginsburg.


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