On the Basis of Sex

Movies Reviews Ruth Bader Ginsburg
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<i>On the Basis of Sex</i>

In RBG, this year’s documentary on Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, a group of self-deemed millennial “media consultants” are given about as much talking head time as Ginsburg’s granddaughter, allowed to pontificate, swooshy hair coiffed ever so stylishly, on the life and times of their meme’d hero as if they were there with her in the litigious trenches. They weren’t, of course; they started an “RBG” tumblr and encouraged like-minded resistance fighters to Photoshop Biggie Smalls’ iconic crown atop her diminutive head. That’s pretty much it. Alongside adorable anecdotes about Ginsburg’s friendship with Antonin Scalia, never once approaching any sort of debate as to the appropriateness of her being super cool with a horrible man who gladly, patronizingly obstructed and publicly shat all over everything for which she spent her life championing, the documentary is the perfect symbol for neoliberal politics in our Trumpian hellscape: Let’s not take real responsibility for what we’ve wrought, let’s just cross our fingers and hope Judge Mom lives long enough to save us from utter doom.

Similarly, it’s both difficult to not approach Mimi Leder’s On the Basis of Sex without an unrelenting cynicism, and it’s easy to understand why the film’s an X-mas offer. About as smooth and unruffled as a biopic can get, the origin story of RBG (played with ceaseless resolve and optimism by Felicity Jones) begins in 1956 upon her enrollment at Harvard Law School, one of only nine women, though the film relishes in so drowning her in a sea of well-manicured men that she might as well be the only woman on the planet. Still, against all odds, as well as the leering shittiness of Professor Brown (Stephen Root) and Dean Griswold (Sam Waterston), Ginsburg thrives, even when her doting husband and fellow student Marty (Armie Hammer, who’d distinguish himself as little more than a blank edifice of spousal support were any character three-dimensional) faces down a cancer diagnosis, meaning Ruth’s got to attend to both his work and hers, as well as to their infant daughter Jane.

Marty gets better, Jane gets older, the couple move to New York for the sake of Marty’s employment, Ruth enrolls in Columbia law school, she graduates and starts teaching law (sex discrimination at that) at Rutgers—Leder’s narrative rides on rails towards the inevitable big 1970 court case, in which she decides to represent Charles Moritz (Chris Mulkey), a man denied a tax deduction for nursing care for his ailing mother due to his single status, plus institutionalized sexism. With help from cheeky ACLU Law Director Mel Wulf (Justin Theroux, 2018’s great actor in bad movies), civil rights activist Dorothy Kenyon (Kathy Bates, ubiquitous) and both Marty and Gloria-Steinem-quoting teenage Jane (Cailee Spaeny), Ruth finds the courage to be the best damned lawyer this land’s ever seen, her melodramatic court success a triumph worthy of any middle-class American family’s sacred Christmastime. Cut to Jones as Ginsburg climbing the steps of the Supreme Court Building, the camera passing behind a column to reveal the real RBG finishing that ascension, hero worship complete.

One can overlook all the workmanlike filmmaking—Leder’s sense of visual language seems to be limited to consistently pointing out how tiny Ginsburg is compared to all the chain-smoking, whisky-swilling men around her—and rote storytelling of On the Basis of Sex rather simply, because we’ve been conditioned to study our history without a hint of nuance. We’re typically never trusted to accept the reality of an icon’s life for what it is rather than what media consultants want it to exemplify. What the film’s real failing amounts to is any lack of interest in Ginsburg’s true superpower: Her inhuman, sleepless drive to do the work. Not that watching a woman pore over esoteric law texts would make for a good time in the theater, but without any sense of such toil, such endless sacrifice, Ginsburg’s legacy within the context of On the Basis of Sex reduces to the same Internet avatar exploited by the documentary as a sign of hope that we definitely do not deserve.

Director: Mimi Leder
Writer: Daniel Stiepleman
Starring: Felicity Jones, Armie Hammer, Kathy Bates, Justin Theroux, Sam Waterston, Stephen Root, Jack Raynor, Cailee Spaeny
Release Date: December 25, 2018

Dom Sinacola is Associate Movies Editor at Paste and a Portland-based writer. You can follow him on Twitter.