Julie Cohen and Betsy West’s documentary RBG about Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg is admittedly a hard act to follow. It was an informative, rousing and brilliant tribute to a public servant who has effectively changed the world for American women. Mimi Leder’s On the Basis of Sex arrives near the end of awards season. While it can’t help but feel lesser compared to the doc, it’s a handsome, important, well-acted drama in its own right.
In 1970, Ruth Bader Ginsburg (Felicity Jones) is a plucky and intelligent Professor of women’s studies at Columbia University. She was one of the very few women in her graduating class at Harvard, and couldn’t get hired at any law firm because she was a woman. She met her husband Marty (Armie Hammer) in law school, and after he fell ill, she attended his classes as well as her own. After struggling to be taken seriously for far too long, Ruth and Marty stumble upon a case that has the potential to topple the system and create a new precedent regarding gender discrimination.
RBG: The Beginning, or On the Basis of Sex proves that there is enough to the story of Ruth Bader Ginsburg for a whole franchise of films. She is such a revelatory figure that has captured the imagination of the American public, and I would see ten more movies about her. This film depicts her first big case, and it’s informative and compelling, but there’s so much more to her story. More than can be summed up in a few lines of end-credit text. Her life story is fascinating to behold, and there isn’t much here that feels dramatized. If anything, some big moments feel abbreviated.
Felicity Jones is doing solid work, although her accent wavers from super Brooklyn-y to almost British. It’s only sometimes distracting, which is a good thing because this is a very talky script that gives her many extended monologues. Armie Hammer is also quite charming as the doting, almost-too-good-to-be-true husband, although he doesn’t resemble the real Martin Ginsburg at all, and really, neither does Felicity Jones. Kathy Bates pops up for a few scenes, and she’s someone I always like watching. Justin Theroux and Sam Waterson round out the supporting cast, and everyone is, for the most part, doing very good work.
Daniel Stiepleman’s script is a bit flawed, however. It flows like a biopic for about the first half hour, as we have two time jumps to bring us to where the remainder of the story takes place, in the early 1970s. I’ve heard people say that this can’t decide if it wants to be a biopic or a courtroom drama, but I don’t think there’s anything wrong with it being both things. Once we get to the definitive court case that drives the rest of the film, it’s quick-paced and exciting. This is a story about a great American finding her way in a world that kept telling her to sit down and be quiet, and to smile more. Anyone who knows Ginsburg knows she loves the opera, and this feels like act one of a production that you wouldn’t mind lasting all day.
Mimi Leder’s direction is serviceable and workmanlike, although there isn’t a lot of flair to it. Felicity Jones is mostly costumed in the same colored light blue skirts and pantsuits, and she always looks great. Regardless of whatever flaws may come to mind after the fact, it’s hard to ignore what a pleasure On the Basis of Sex is, as a moviegoing experience. It’s a talky legal drama that could feel very dry, brought to life with a quick wit and enthusiastic performances. It may not be the defining biopic that Ruth Bader Ginsburg deserves, but it’s a start. It would be easy to tell you to ignore this film and just rent the documentary instead, but I think both are worth seeing.