by Alan Yudman
This has been the year of Ruth Bader Ginsburg. First was the documentary RBG (review to come.. I’ll admit I have not yet seen it, but I have purchased it). Now a fictionalized story about her first case fighting for equal rights for women. But ON THE BASIS OF SEX is more than just a movie filled with legal briefs and courtroom arguments. It is also a love story about Ruth and her husband Martin. In fact, sometimes Marty comes off looking better than Ruth. But that is a shallow assessment of what is happening here.
The film tracks Ginsburg’s life from her first day at Harvard to the case that put her on the map as a tough litigator. Harvard Law School is rightly portrayed as a boys club that women should feel privileged to join. And their numbers are grotesquely small at this point in history. But Ruth Ginsburg is tough enough to succeed. She also has to overcome a life-threatening health scare for her husband. Despite her family obligations, she rises to the top of her class. Marty is ahead of Ruth at Harvard and when he gets a job in New York, Ruth asks the dean (Sam Waterston) to finish classes at Columbia. He refuses and his argument foreshadows Ruth’s fight for equal rights. So Ruth finishes classes at Columbia. But, she cannot find a law firm that will hire her because she is a wife and mother. More foreshadowing. So she takes a job teaching at Rutgers. Ruth is unfulfilled. She sees herself as settling and pushed to the background. Marty sees this and suggests a gender discrimination case she might take on. It involves a man who was denied a tax deduction for dependent care for his invalid mother. The tax code allowed a woman to take the deduction, but not a man. Ruth sees it as the perfect case for her and Marty to argue together.
Two-thirds of the film involves the Moritz case and how Ruth fights to get the case before the 10th Circuit Court of Appeals. But it also shows her struggle with discrimination and how her unflinching dedication to the precision of the law puts a strain on her relationship with her teenage daughter. It also depicts a passionate and touching love story. Marty is truly ahead of his time in the way he supports Ruth’s passion. They are equals in their marriage. No one is more important. It is a true partnership born out of love and respect. That message is nearly as powerful as Ruth’s fight against discrimination.
Felicity Jones is wonderful as Ruth. She nails the toughness and sensitivity. It is a technically wonderful performance. Her accent is perfect. Some may think that it slips between Brooklyn, generic American and New York. But that seems intentional. She is trying to hide her Brooklyn/Jewishness to break down barriers. But when passions rise, Jones allows the accent to slip back into Brooklyn. It is amazingly skillful. Armie Hammer is fantastic as Marty. His care and love for Ruth are evident. He is fast becoming one of my favorite actors . Justin Theroux is also very good as Mel Wulf, the bombastic head of the ACLU who Ruth must convince to join her cause. There are more great supporting performances from Waterston and Stephen Root, who lights up a screen whenever he appears.
The screenplay was written by Daniel Stiepleman. He has the advantage of knowing the subject very well. Ruth Bader Ginsburg is his aunt. Marty Ginsburg is his mother’s oldest brother. Stiepleman tells the story that Aunt Ruth read the draft of the screenplay like she was reading a legal brief. I think that’s a fantastic image. His knowledge of the subject makes it feel very personal. Mimi Leder brings a much needed woman’s perspective to the storytelling and draws a vivid portrait of Ruth’s struggle in the way she frames Jones in every shot. That is especially evident in the climactic scene in a Denver appellate courtroom.
ON THE BASIS OF SEX depicts an underdog’s fight for justice. It is a lawyer version of ROCKY. Ruth is punching up at the glass ceiling instead of taking on frozen cows. It is powerful and inspiring and a story of optimism and a celebration of a truly remarkable person (I was going to say woman.. but I think Justice Ginsburg would view that as discrimination).