The Ruth Bader Ginsburg biopic ‘On the Basis of Sex’ is formulaic but satisfying.
Kernel Rating: 3.5 (3.5 out of 5)
MPAA Rating: PG Length: 120 minutes
Age Appropriate For: 12+. The film follows Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s life in the 1950s through 1970s, as she progressed from being a law student to fighting for gender equality alongside the ACLU, and the movie focuses on the sexual harrassment that was common and legal at that time. There are many scenes during which men mock or criticize women, including catcalling and mocking in a classroom setting, and some cursing. Scenes in the 1970s touch on the Vietnam War, including protest scenes; one character becomes sick with cancer and is seen in a hospital bed; adults drink alcohol and smoke cigarettes; and there is an implied sex scene and sustained affection between the Ginsburgs. Overall, the film focuses on a positive message about gender equality outside of the home but also inside of it, and that should resonate with viewers.
By Roxana Hadadi
Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg gets the biopic treatment in “On the Basis of Sex,” which tidily contains two decades of Ginsburg’s life into two hours. The movie is a little too neat in its presentation of Ginsburg’s life, but “On the Basis of Sex” still delivers a satisfying story about female perseverance and determination that should resonate with socially engaged teen viewers.
Before joining the Supreme Court in the 1990s, Ginsburg was instrumental in battling sex-based discrimination, the hundreds of laws that dictated what women could and could not do, what jobs they could hold, what benefits they could receive, what questions people could ask them in job interviews, or how they were treated as an employee or how easily they could be fired. Ginsburg was integral in the fight to overturn each of these laws, and “On the Basis of Sex” focuses on the beginnings of that movement, starting in the 1950s, when Ginsburg was a first-year student at Harvard Law School.
From the beginning, Ginsburg (Felicity Jones, of “Rogue One: A Star Wars Story”) experienced firsthand what it was like to be a woman in a man’s world: Despite her preparedness and brilliance, men attempted to undermine her in class, interrupting her and doubting her knowledge. Harvard Law’s Dean openly spoke about how the nine women enrolled in the first-year class took spots from male applicants. And although she graduated at the top of her class, when interviewing for jobs after graduation, law firm after law firm turned her down. Her adoring husband Marty (Armie Hammer, of “The Man from UNCLE”) wants her to keep trying, but Ginsburg settles for a job in the classroom, teaching at Rutgers Law School.
Years pass, until Marty notices when reading a tax filing something that sparks Ruth’s interest: a man is being denied benefits by the IRS because the law is explicitly written for women. It’s an example of sex-based discrimination, and the Ginsburgs seize it to disrupt the whole system, aligning themselves with the ACLU and hoping to present a legal challenge that can be applied to dozens of laws that hurt or exclude women.
Jones is a steely, determined Ginsburg, and she and Hammer have excellent chemistry as a loving married couple who have faced down cancer and want to make a change together, side by side, that will make the world better for their daughter and countless other women. The conversations Ginsburg leads in her classroom, and the arguments she has with her combative daughter, will raise interesting questions for discussion after the film: Was the Ginsburgs’ approach to tackling gender-based discrimination the right one? What about their daughter, who advocated for marching in the streets and direct political action? How could the American justice system be changed today? What laws are just? What laws might not be?
The screening I attended of “On the Basis of Sex” was full of multigenerational families watching the film together, and although some elements of the movie are a little too on-the-nose — the script veers into some cliches, and the movie never presents Ginsburg as anything less than flawless — the film is a good choice not only for mothers and daughters, but for entire families, regardless of gender. Ginsburg’s impact on American life is inarguable, and her legacy is effectively captured in the well-acted and well-intentioned “On the Basis of Sex.”
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