On the Basis of Sex is a solid movie that honors the trials, tribulations, and ultimate vindication of a true legal pioneer: Supreme Court justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg. The movie covers her early career from her time as one of just nine female law students at Harvard in the 1950s to her success as the attorney responsible for elevating women to equal status in the law in 1970.
While the documentary RBG does a better job of telling the sweep of her legal career, and her elevation to celebrity status, On the Basis of Sex is a well executed drama. The focus is on the breakthrough case that established her reputation in law and as a social justice “warrior.” Felicity Jones plays the focused and highly analytical Ginsburg while Armie Hammer plays her equally brilliant tax attorney husband Martin Ginsburg.
On the Basis of Sex humanizes Ginsburg through its depiction of the complex relationship, attraction, and love between the RBG and her husband, Martin. Their mutual respect and support was genuine. Director Mimi Leder deserves credit for making this a centerpiece of the story’s dramatic arc. When Ginsburg is thwarted at every attempt to establish herself as a practicing attorney, her husband and family are her emotion anchors. The mutual respect between the Ginsburgs and the way the truly co-parented their children represents a real world allegory that mirrors her professional drive for achieving justice in the legal system.
A pivotal theme in the movie is how recalcitrant legal institutions remain even when faced with challenges to obviously outdated doctrine and precedent. Ginsburg’s legal strategy for securing equal status for women under the law ended up being brilliant. She didn’t put a woman at the center of the case equality, knowing that the courts would not be receptive to it. (Indeed, I fully didn’t appreciate this point until watching the documentary and the narrative film.)
Strong, solid performances anchor the movie
On the Basis of Sex won’t make my top 10 list for 2018, but the movie is strong with solid performances that honors the history and Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s pioneering role in making our society more fair and just. Indeed, having grown up in the wake of some of these decisions, I left the movie theater marveling at how hard it is to make common sense the law of the land. The themes, principles, and values will with just about anyone, especially young women. On the Basis of Sex is definitely worth watching on DVD or when it begins streaming over the Internet.