Published Dec 18, 2018When Ruth Bader Ginsburg's nephew Daniel Stiepleman wrote the screenplay for On the Basis of Sex, he could never have known that the Supreme Court would become the subject of so much public scrutiny in the second half of 2018. In light of all that turmoil, this biopic about the iconic Supreme Court justice packs an extra emotional punch — even if its uplifting tone doesn't quite fit our current political moment.
The story picks up in the 1950s, with Ginsburg entering Harvard Law School just a few years after women were first permitted to attend. There, she contends with micro-aggressions from dismissive profs and her sexist dean — plus, she's raising a baby while her husband Martin battles testicular cancer.
Despite acing her studies, she can't find a law firm willing to hire a woman, which is how she ends up becoming a professor at Rutgers while Martin becomes a successful tax lawyer. Finally, in the early 1970s, she finds the case that brings her into the courtroom: a tax exemption case in which a man is being discriminating against because of his gender. Taking the case alongside her husband, Ginsburg tackles a system of oppression and seeks to prove that any gender-based discrimination is unconstitutional.
Director Mimi Leder draws the audience in by lobbing some moral softballs in the film's first half: we're clearly expected to tsk every time an old guy says something backwards and sexist, and whoop whenever Ginsburg puts him in his place. Throw in cheesy score of collegiate strings, and the film occasionally feels like it's patting itself on the back for being on the right side of history.
Once Ginsburg leaves the classroom and enters the courtroom, the film finally begins to find some of the necessary anger. After all, it's not enough to simply snicker at closed-minded comments from privileged dudes, since those same comments are supported by hundreds of years of legal precedent. It's infuriating to watch Ginsburg's opponents bluster about "so-called gender discrimination" (particularly given how this brand of idiocy is still very present in modern political discourse).
It's in this emotional whirlwind that Jones best channels Ginsburg's tenaciousness, frustration and moments of self-doubt — even though the British-born actor sometimes struggles to hang onto her Brooklyn accent. She has a loving but confrontational rapport with her strong-willed teenage daughter Jane (Cailee Spaeny), whose passion for social justice inspires Ginsburg to pursue her cause.
It's an inspiring account of a feminist hero, and Ginsburg's messages of equality and social justice are more relevant than ever in 2018. The only problem is, On the Basis of Sex wraps up all up in a tidy bow with a triumphant finale that feels like an underdog sports movie. By not acknowledging the regressive politics of the Trump age — particularly in light of Brett Kavanaugh's recent appointment — it's a difficult to fully buy in to this warm'n'fuzzy optimism.