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Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s iconification culminates in the biopic On the Basis of Sex

Felicity Jones stars in a smart, satisfying movie about the future Supreme Court justice.

Felicity Jones plays a young Ruth Bader Ginsburg in On the Basis of Sex.
Felicity Jones plays a young Ruth Bader Ginsburg in On the Basis of Sex.
Focus Features
Alissa Wilkinson covers film and culture for Vox. Alissa is a member of the New York Film Critics Circle and the National Society of Film Critics.

2018 was a banner year for Ruth Bader Ginsburg as a pop culture icon, with various RBG memes, Kate McKinnon’s Saturday Night Live impression (which Ginsburg loved, when she finally saw it), a 722-page biography, and the high-earning documentary RBG all making their mark.

Now the year of Ginsburg’s widespread iconification culminates in On the Basis of Sex, about her early years as a young law student and wife, then law professor, then co-litigator with her husband, Martin Ginsburg, on the 1972 gender rights case Charles E. Moritz v. Commissioner of Internal Revenue. It’s an old-fashioned Hollywood drama about a young woman finding her own voice. But it doubles as a story about the broader struggle for equal rights for women and men in America, as well as a primer into the way Ginsburg thinks, presenting her as a shrewd legal tactician and advocate for progressive causes throughout her career.

And though it focuses on Ginsburg’s work, it’s also a romance between Ruth and Marty, which — in a striking reversal of how romantic relationships usually work in movies about someone’s career taking off — is affectionate, trusting, mutually supportive, and beneficial to both of them. (The film takes some liberties with the details of the Ginsburg’s story, but by all accounts, its depiction of their relationship is absolutely true.)

There’s nothing flashy or innovative about On the Basis of Sex. It’s the very definition of a workmanlike film. But it’s a satisfying watch nonetheless, and a smart one too — just like its subject.

On the Basis of Sex focuses on Ginsburg’s early years, and her rise from law student to groundbreaking litigator

If you’ve seen RBG, or even if you haven’t, some of what happens in On the Basis of Sex — directed by veteran Mimi Leder (The Leftovers) and written by Ginsburg’s nephew Daniel Stiepleman — will be familiar. The film starts with Ruth (Felicity Jones) attending her first day at Harvard Law School, and sticking out like a sore thumb as one of only a few women in the class. Ruth’s husband Marty (Armie Hammer) is a second-year student at Harvard, and they have a baby at home, but she quickly establishes herself as smart and capable, and not easily cowed.

Felicity Jones as Ruth Bader Ginsburg in On the Basis of Sex
Ginsburg is one of the few women in her Harvard Law class.
Focus Features

That’s not to say there aren’t challenges. Ruth must confront the casual sexism of a school that at the time had only been admitting women for six years. At a dinner for the nine first-year female students thrown by the dean (Sam Waterston), she and the others must defend why they are occupying a spot at Harvard “that could have gone to a man.” She’s denied some of the privileges of her male counterparts. She weathers all of these moments with aplomb, though you know she’s filing them away mentally.

But the biggest challenge comes when Marty collapses one day. He’s diagnosed with testicular cancer and informed of a low survival rate. Now Ruth must care for him and their toddler while also attending her classes — and his, too, to take notes so he can keep up.

It is daunting, but she seems to manage it just fine. (In a discussion following the film’s New York premiere, Ginsburg said that she usually spent her evenings helping Marty, then starting her own studying at about 2 am, and to this day operates on very little sleep.)

The film moves through their law school years rapidly. Marty becomes a promising attorney at a tax law firm in New York, Ruth transfers to Columbia for her third year, and the couple moves to the city. (Both are Brooklyn natives.) Upon graduation, Ruth finds that no one will hire her to practice law, even though her credentials are impeccable — first in her class, member of the Law Review at both Harvard and Columbia — for reasons that are obviously linked to her gender. Some consider her a liability in office, because she would make her colleagues’ wives jealous. Others think she won’t be a good colleague because she must be a “ballbuster.” One directs her toward the secretarial pool.

Felicity Jones in On the Basis of Sex.
Felicity Jones in On the Basis of Sex.
Focus Features

Ruth wants to litigate, but eventually she takes a job teaching at Rutgers, and the film jumps forward to the 1970s. This is where the action really begins. Ruth teaches courses on sex-based discrimination at Rutgers and admires her activist students, but yearns to be part of the solution, to do more than just inspire the next generation.

Through Marty, she catches wind of a case that sparks her imagination: A never-married man in Denver who is caring for his aged mother has been denied a tax break that IRS law grants to unmarried women in the same position, and the case has come before the 10th Circuit Court of Appeals. Winning this case, she believes, might actually take down the whole system of discriminatory laws in the US. But first, she’ll have to find a way to argue the case, though she’s never even argued in court before — and there are all kinds of obstacles in her path.

On the Basis of Sex isn’t especially concerned with what makes Ginsburg tick. It’s much more interested in explaining her legal mind.

Somewhat predictably for a film written by Ginsburg’s nephew, On the Basis of Sex is not at all interested in criticizing its central figure, or even really showing her — or Marty, who died in 2010 — as having many flaws. They are simply good people with good intentions, working both together and separately to fight for the things they believe in.

I’ve now seen the film twice, and the first time I watched it, I thought its gloss on two real people weakened it overall. Maybe it does. But the second time around, it struck me that the point of On the Basis of Sex is less to comprehensively study the character of Ruth Bader Ginsburg (who still remains a bit of a mystery by the end) and more to show us how she thinks, as both a litigator and presumably now as a Supreme Court justice.

What On the Basis of Sex does extraordinarily well is explain — without turning to overly clunky expository dialogue — what sets a legal mind like Ginsburg’s apart from that of more conservative litigators. Her goal, as it’s dramatized in the film, is to find ways to not challenge laws so much as precedents. Her reasoning is that cultures change and evolve, sometimes finding things that were once inconceivable to be permissible and, perhaps more importantly, vice versa.

Justin Theroux, Felicity Jones, and Armie Hammer in On the Basis of Sex.
Justin Theroux, Felicity Jones, and Armie Hammer in On the Basis of Sex.
Focus Features

But a system that relies on precedents has much less room for those sorts of evolutions, since decisions that were made a century ago can have direct repercussions on decisions made today, even if the culture they exist within has changed for any number of reasons.

That’s all teased out in a natural way in On the Basis of Sex, through conversations between colleagues and, ultimately, a stirring courtroom scene. (Onscreen Ruth initially stumbles a bit in court, which makes for good drama; the real Ginsburg smiled after the New York premiere as she said she never stumbled.)

All this means that, no matter your own perspective on the law, On the Basis of Sex functions as a helpful explainer on a certain kind of legal reasoning. And what makes it especially effective in that regard is that the case the film focuses on — which also set a pattern for Ginsburg’s future work — is one in which the law was written with gendered language that adversely affected a man rather than a woman.

The goal was to show that laws that discriminate on the basis of gender — whether they have to do with taxes, equal pay, overtime, or many other issues — harm everyone, not just women. Ginsburg would later start the Women’s Rights Project at the American Civil Liberties Union, going on to repeat this tactic in many ways.

But the thread that holds the whole film together is the love story between Ruth and her beloved Marty, who is clearly a better cook than her (Armie Hammer shows off some fine knife skills while wearing an apron in this film), and who loves her and respects her intelligence more than anyone else. Marty is the only person who always believes in her.

It’s inspiring and moving, and it lends credence to Ruth’s stalwart faith that change can, and will, come. Moments in the film that could have been tweaked to create conflict between them (and probably would be, in a fictional story) are instead catalysts for inspiration.

Armie Hammer and Felicity Jones play Martin and Ruth Bader Ginsburg in On the Basis of Sex.
Armie Hammer and Felicity Jones play Martin and Ruth Bader Ginsburg in On the Basis of Sex.
Focus Features

That doesn’t mean On the Basis of Sex digs into all the aspects of their lives that might have more accurately represented the challenges they faced and overcame. Both Ginsburgs, for instance, were Jewish, and they were working in a midcentury culture that harbored casual (and not so casual) anti-Semitism, something they’d have had to deal with both at Harvard and at work. (The film’s casting was controversial for this reason: Hammer’s father is Jewish, but Jones is not Jewish at all.)

That seems like a misstep. Yet On the Basis of Sex still has plenty to recommend it as a stirring tale of a smart woman who became one of the most notable figures of her time, and her loving husband who supported her success. As a close to the Year of RBG, it’s a solid, satisfying film.

On the Basis of Sex opens in theaters on December 25.

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