Does On the Basis of Sex Uphold RBG’s Legacy?

Director: Mimi Leder Starring: Felicity Jones, Armie Hammer Runtime: 120 minutes

With the close of 2018 having put the integrity of the United States Supreme Court seats in the spotlight, the story of the remarkable Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg is something that has been a notable cinematic feature of early 2019. This feature length adaptation of Ginsberg’s formative legal years could perhaps best be watched alongside the documentary RBG, which has garnered more critical acclaim thus far, securing a nomination for Best Documentary Feature at the Oscars.

Given an acclaimed performance as Jane Hawking in The Theory of Everything, Felicity Jones is at this point seasoned enough to be able to pull this off more than competently, and does so throughout. The depth and range of character that she can exhibit is already circumscribed here by what appears to be a fulfilling and loving domestic setting. She doesn’t have the chance to extend her range in ways that for example Jennifer Connolly might have in A Beautiful Mind. Despite changing circumstances and severe health problems for Ginsberg’s husband, played by the reliable Armie Hammer, the life of the Ginsberg is still a privileged one. In stories that typically celebrate the overcoming of struggle, especially in circumstances where the protagonist is a minority, the socioeconomic background is often bleak. This is far from the case in On The Basis of Sex. The opening scene centers on Ginsberg’s induction into one of the most prestigious educational institutions in the world, Harvard Law School.

Given the relative infancy of female admissions at the time, there is still undoubtedly a lot for Ginsberg, as well as the few female peers she has, to put up with. This is well illustrated at a dinner scene early on, where the obnoxious Dean questions the women as to why they should be so special as to usurp the place of other competent men. The theme here is to the point. The arrival of women into the halls of Harvard Law School is not as genuinely progressive as one might think, and is still tainted by lingering misogynistic contempt, at times portrayed a little too on the nose, with The Newsroom’s Sam Waterson being the leading “crusty old white male” archetype. The same scene also shows us for the first time the wit and intelligence that was so obviously going to take Ginsberg to high places.

Smashing the patriarchy is not however, the main theme that runs through On the Basis of Sex. While gender permeates much of the societal presuppositions that Ginsberg battles throughout, both in academia and in court, a more general inspirational, and perhaps professional coming of age story, is at work. One of the heroes here is undoubtedly Martin Ginsberg. Armie Hammer is well cast here, playing both a masculine, yuppie archetype, thriving in a waspy male dominated legal world, while also being a compassionate, kind hearted cheerleader for his wife, whose success did surpassed his own. Martin’s lack of resentment in favour of respect and piety is well conveyed here. There’s a lot of reciprocity in the relationship too, and Martin has his own demons to cope with, at times relying almost entirely on the love and support of the equally supportive Ruth.

Both the domestic and professional lives of Ruth and Martin really don’t seem to deviate that far from normal. Unsurprisingly, given the changing times, the increasing recognition of civil rights and a more egalitarian climate, their daughter, Jane grows up as a more fierce and proud woman, with Ruth clearly admiring the aggression in her daughter’s civil activism. The activism of her daughter and her students spurs Ruth on to step away from the purely academic role she’s made for herself – playing the resentful teacher educating the next generation to do what no law firm would give her the chance to accomplish. It all culminates with both Ruth and Martin arguing a gender issue on appeal at the tenth circuit court.

On the Basis of Sex is undoubtedly mushy at times, and that’s not necessarily to be scoffed at. Arguably, a bigger issue here is the timeline. On the Basis of Sex ultimately tells a story about a talented young lawyer with potential, finding her feet in spite of relatively difficult times. This doesn’t map on to the weight that Ginsberg’s legacy demands and the film suffers as a result.

On the Basis of Sex simply doesn’t convey the sheer legal presence that Ginsberg has become, and also her sheer popularity among her peers. It is quite rightly mentioned that, after Bill Clinton nominating her to the highest court in the land, she was nominated 96-3. Contrast this with Neil Gorsuch being voted in at 54–45, and Brett Kavanagh being edged in 50–48. Such a resounding consensus is testament to Ginsberg as a character, especially given how she was also the first female Jewish justice confirmed to the court. The timeline also didn’t allow much reference to her notoriously strong friendship with the late Justice Antonin Scalia, who was ideologically opposed to her in every conceivable way, yet always spoke of her with utter reverence.

These weren’t salient features of this story, and in part because of this, it lacked the punch needed to pay the respect deserved. The story also struggles to find a place between courtroom drama and domestic drama. Even at that, the weight of any such drama isn’t always obvious, until, on occasion, it crosses over too far the other way into overly sentimental territory. For example, the courtroom scene is replete with inspiring yet somewhat lame catchphrases, ending with a highly predictable “walk out the front of the courthouse proudly” moment. This is just a bit too tried and tested. The limitations of a true life story mean that there’s no directorial license to evoke the same emotionally charged speech by Matthew Mc Conaughey in A Time to Kill, for example, but it still could have been better executed.

Such excessive sentimentality will inevitably attract “Oscar bait” labels. It’s become somewhat irritatingly common to throw such a label at a film but unfortunately for director Mimi Leder, there is more than a grain of truth to it here. Time and time again, biopics like these seem to involve a well-executed lead performance in an otherwise dull or at least middle of the road adaptation. On the Basis of Sex just doesn’t do enough to escape this pigeonhole of well meaning but forgettable biopics. Ruth Bader Ginsberg is a legal pioneer, and deserves more than this competent but lukewarm drama.

3 out of 5 stars (3 / 5)

About Ethan Shattock

Ethan is a popcorn-enthusiast who occasionally catches some films in between. Enjoying everything from the grandeur of the IFI, the intimacy of the Lighthouse to buzz of the small screens in the big city. Ethan has a taste for everything but tends to sink his teeth into horror in particular!

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