‘On The Basis of Sex’ doesn’t do Ruth Bader Ginsburg justice

 By Dan Cava

January 11, 2019

The Trump presidency has supplied an endless supply of “timeliness” to many of the issues Hollywood loves to address: freedom of the press (The Post), race relations (BlacKkKlansmen), tolerance (The Shape of Water), and so on. In the last few years, as the balance of the Supreme Court has shifted to the right, the stalwartly liberal Supreme Court justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg (or RBG, as she is affectionately known to her admirers) has become something of a feminist icon, with her passionate intellect, legendary workouts, and famous “dissent collar” fashion statements. The story of her early fights for gender equality as a young lawyer are the perfect match for the thorny era that has given us #MeToo and #TimesUp. By all accounts it’s the right time for the Ginsburg biopic On The Basis of Sex.

Felicity Jones as Ruth Bader Ginsburg. Courtesy of Focus Features

If the recent documentary RBG is to be believed, there’s a wonderful and intricate story to tell here. But director Mimi Leder and screenwriter Daniel Stiepleman have opted instead to take an unconventional subject and make a disappointingly conventional drama. On the Basis of Sex has everything going for it: a solid cast, an otherwise accomplished director, and a ripe political moment. But Leder’s overly safe direction and the script’s varnished storytelling lack the knotty, spicy, sassy sophistication of its subject.

The filmmakers are clearly big fans of Ginsburg (her nephew wrote the screenplay) and it seems that the temptation to beatify her in her time may have proved too great. I grew up in a socially conservative Christian environment, where members of the community encouraged us to enjoy mediocre movies simply because they were in line with the orthodoxy. As a result, I’ve developed a pretty healthy radar for media whose impact is being lessened by the presence of a message. And, though I love On The Basis of Sex’s ideals, I feel that same deadening dynamic at work here.

There is a subtle complacency throughout (again, I’m reminded of lackluster Christian movies like Fireproof or War Room), as if the filmmakers avoided the hard work of realism or nuance so long as our heroine’s heroism was being made clear to the widest possible audience. Earlier in 2018 Ocean’s 8 made this error, leaning hard on the otherwise worthy aspect of “women looking cool during a heist” while neglecting things like funny jokes and interesting characters.

Felicity Jones as Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Cailee Spaeny as Jane Ginsburg and Kathy Bates as Dorothy Kenyon. Courtesy of Focus Features

On the Basis mistakes a steady stream of gender microaggressions for drama. We can spot the bad guys a mile away and the flaws in their logic from even farther. Don’t get me wrong, microaggressions and misguided villains belong in a movie like this. But so does interesting storytelling. It’s all so…packaged. The result is the movie equivalent of a middle school history lesson. Rather than present us history in all of its scrappy glory, On the Basis gives us a sanitized sermon.

One of the film’s climactic confrontations is already featured in the movie’s trailer, so you’ll excuse me for spoiling it for you once again. In the scene Ginsburg (played steadily by Felicity Jones) stands before a panel of elderly Federal judges, all of them men. In a lecturing and vaguely chauvinistic tone, one scowly judge intones, “The word ‘woman’ does not appear even once in the U.S. Constitution.” Ginsburg responds definitively: “Neither does the word ‘freedom.’”

As a moment of triumph, not to mention a delicious gotcha moment of our female hero sticking it to her male interrogators, the scene is simple and effective, the kind of mic drop Hollywood dreams of. There were “hmmm”s of awe throughout the movie theater.

But there’s a problem. The word “freedom” does appear in the Constitution. It’s right there in the First Amendment.

Felicity Jones as Ruth Bader Ginsburg. Courtesy of Focus Features

Now, in real un-overly-simplified life, there were compelling complexities at work. The exact word “freedom” did not appear in the original 1787 Constitution (the word “liberty” did, but let’s allow for dramatic purposes that Federal judges don’t know how synonyms work). The Constitution had to be updated– amended, as it were– in 1791 to include “freedom” and the rest of the Bill of Rights. Part of Ginsburg’s overarching argument, and the basis of the progressive judicial theory she champions, is that laws in a democracy need to be in a dance with history as it unfolds and as society evolves, hopefully for the better. Attitudes about race and gender have changed, and it’s important to enshrine positive changes at the highest legal levels by doing things like banning slavery and extending the right to vote to everyone over the age of 18 regardless of sex or skin color.

But rather than address these essential, complicated (and, I think, fascinating) details, the scene just moves on, rewriting both history and our governing documents to achieve a TV-movie-level emotional payoff. Stiepleman and Leder seem to think we have everything we need because the scene has sent the message that Ginsburg is progressive and triumphant. But Ginsburg was progressive and triumphant because she is brilliant. The movie’s broad-brush approach doesn’t allow for actual brilliance, just the look of it.

Armie Hammer as Martin D. Ginsburg and Felicity Jones as Ruth Bader Ginsburg. Courtesy of Focus Features

Why on earth is a movie, this movie of all movies, a movie about one of the most significant, celebrated, and visible legal minds in America today, using an outright (and easily researched) error as its climactic moment?

The answer to that question is at the core of the problem with On The Basis of Sex, a movie so eager to lift up its hero that it glosses over the very details that make her history gripping. The trite tidiness that at first glance benefits the “freedom” scene above ends up shallowing out the whole enterprise. For everything it gets right– the look of the era, Ginsburg’s equal partnership with her husband Marty (Armie Hammer, a nice piece of against-stereotype casting), and Ginsburg’s struggle with confidence– it gets the biggest thing wrong. A brilliant hero deserves a brilliant film, not a dumbed-down story of a giant intellect.

Star Rating: 2.5 out of 5 

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