Felicity Jones steps into the role of Ginsburg, but this adoring biography ends well before she is sworn in as one of the Supreme Court nine. The film is the story of Ginsburg as a student and groundbreaking lawyer – a sort of origin story for a real-life superhero. By the time the real Ginsburg makes a cameo in the film, you’ll likely be cheering out loud, as one recent preview audience did.
“On the Basis of Sex ” is actually split into two parts. The first establishes Ginsburg as a brilliant and indomitable young woman. We see her attend Harvard Law School in the mid-1950s as one of only nine women, all facing a sneering welcome. As if that weren’t a big enough ask, she’s also the mother of an infant. And when her Harvard-attending husband (the wonderful Armie Hammer) battles cancer, she attends all his classes as well to take notes for him. Ginsburg still graduates at the top of her class, but no firm will hire her, because she’s a woman.
Truth be told, the second part is the more interesting. The story flashes forward to 1970, when Ginsburg – now a law professor at Rutgers – starts shaping cases she would bring before the Supreme Court, arguing that the Equal Protection Clause of the 14th Amendment guarantees equal rights for women. There are ugly behind-the-scenes maneuvering and compromises, as the stakes get high. A loss could “see the women’s movement back 10 years.” Ginsburg is a much more human figure in this second part, especially in a critical dinner scene in which her lack of courtroom polish is exposed.
Jones is truly marvelous in the role, showing Ginsburg’s burning desire to change societal unfairness and, more intimately, coming to terms with her own daughter’s rebelliousness. “Don’t know where she gets her stubbornness,” Ginsburg says. (Her husband pretends to be clueless). The English actress’ only stumble is occasionally mangling Ginsburg’s New York accent. But her speech in front of the 10th Circuit Court of Appeals will inspire you to drop everything and enroll in law school. “You can right this wrong,” she tells the three judge panel.
If you’re wondering how balanced this biography is, it’s time to tell you it was written by Daniel Stiepleman, who happens to be Ginsburg’s nephew. So not much dirt is thrown. The only person who maybe comes off better than Ginsburg is her husband, who is not only a progressive spouse and father but also carefully finds moments to inspire and help his wife. (He helped her argue her case in appellate court, and he even found the obscure case she used to change the world.)
Others who shine are Justin Theroux as a formidable ACLU lawyer and Cailee Spaeny as Ginsburg’s spirited daughter, pushing her mother forward. “It’s not a movement if everyone’s sitting down. It’s a support group,” the daughter tells mom. It’s not a perfect film, though: There are some odd transitions, unexplained legal decisions and a reliance on clichés, such as montages of legal briefs being written on typewriters as music swells.
“On the Basis of Sex” marks a return to feature film directing by Mimi Leder, who has been badly missed. Leder, who has directed action (the underappreciated “The Peacemaker”) and drama (“The Leftovers”) somehow makes a wonky court case about Section 214 of the tax code, which deals with dependent care expenses, into a nail-biting thriller. “It could topple the whole damn system of discrimination,” we are told. Leder doesn’t miss the chance to drive home a visual point, as when she has the line “the weather of the day doesn’t dictate the climate of the era” spoken during a rainstorm.
Leder also uses as a recurring motif the image of Ginsburg climbing polished marble steps and you can’t help but root for the justice as she ascends ever higher mountains. In a year when a much less accomplished male judge joined Ginsburg on the land’s highest court, it’s only right to let the #MeToo-led 2018 end with a respectful smooch of a film for a true heroine in cape (OK, a robe).