Ruth Bader Ginsburg may well be the most media savvy Supreme Court justice in American history, the only one to truly become a cultural icon. From the best-selling 2015 book, The Notorious RBG: The Life and Times of Ruth Bader Ginsburg, to Kate McKinnon’s frenzied and kinetic Saturday Night Live impersonation, to a CNN documentary that billed itself “an intimate portrait of an unlikely rock star,” Ginsburg has penetrated the public consciousness in ways no other justice has.
Fitting then that Hollywood has now decided to immortalize her in a film “inspired by true events.” On the Basis of Sex—which was released in select cities in December but hits all theaters this Friday—follows a 39-year-old Ginsberg (Felicity Jones) arguing a 1972 tax case that challenged the constitutionality of a single man being denied a dependent-care tax deduction simply because he was a single man. (The deduction was allowed only to women, widowers, and divorced men.)
Written by Daniel Stiepleman and directed by Mimi Leder, the film tries to be a testament to Ginsburg’s trailblazing feminism, exemplified by her winning a case that sought to eradicate gender discrimination against men. Regrettably, the filmmakers seem so enamored with wanting to make an inspiring Hollywood feature that, in the process, they actually dummied down the subject they wanted to lionize.
On the Basis of Sex begins in the 1950s, with a sea of young white men in gray flannel suits entering the storied halls of Harvard Law School. There are only a few young women, one of whom happens to be Ruth Bader Ginsburg. Already married, the Brooklyn native, must deal with male indifference, a cancer-stricken husband, and a baby daughter all while pursuing a legal education.
Ginsburg is full of enthusiasm for the law and the possibility of using her skills as an intelligent, capable, and competent woman. Unfortunately, the 1950s doesn’t have much use for women of her caliber. While a biography would painstakingly detail the many professional rejections she incurred as a woman, despite graduating from Cornell at the top of her class, On the Basis of Sex short circuits this chapter of her life. To its credit, the film doesn’t fall into the biopic trap of going from the beginning of its subject’s life to the end; it picks an event around which it can tell story.
Early on, Ginsburg appears in the office of a seemingly sympathetic potential employer, but he says he can’t offer her a position: this would evidently set off a panic from suspicious wives of the firm’s associates, who would view her as a marital threat. Realizing that her options are limited, Ginsburg takes a job as a professor at Rutgers Law School.
When the 1970s roll around, American campuses are hotbeds of revolt and dissension. Ginsburg’s snarky daughter Jane (Cailee Spaeny) finds her too accommodating and not radical enough for the times. At one point, Jane mocks her mother for preparing for another one of Martin’s firm’s cocktail parties. Surely, a woman of her legal ability can’t be content with playing a supporting role while her husband rises the ranks of a major law firm.
Ginsburg finally gets her chance to break out when Martin (Armie Hammer) brings her a tax case. “I don’t read tax cases,” she tells him. Not long after, she’s representing the plaintiff in Moritz v. Commissioner of Internal Revenue. Her client, Charles Moritz, was denied a deduction for expenses use taking care of his ailing mother. Because he had never married, he was ineligible under the tax code.
The film dramatizes Ginsburg’s struggle to win the case, even though she had never before litigated anything, much less make an oral argument before an appellate court. Despite the support she receives from her husband, and the assistance from an obnoxious ACLU attorney (Justin Theroux), Ginsburg struggles to find the right tone and pertinent argument before the Tenth Circuit panel of three male judges.
Legal dramas are usually resolved with a big moment in which the truth is revealed and justice rolls down. On the Basis of Sex does not transcend this impulse. RBG eventually finds her mojo, so to speak, when standing up to the government’s counsel, who accuses the Ginsburgs of manipulating their client to pursue a “radical social agenda.” After some initial blunders, Ginsberg rises to the occasion. Just as Martin is about to make his closing argument, she grabs his arm and assertively tells him, “Babe, I got this.” Of course, she does. She’s RBG.
The problem, however, is that this kind of depiction seems more fitting for the Hallmark channel. Moritz was, indeed, a groundbreaking case, but its significance is reduced by a Hollywood formula deigned to generate a feel-good outcome.
On the Basis of Sex is not a bad film, per se, but merely an unimaginative one.