“On the Basis of Sex” is a historically fascinating movie about the early academic and legal career of now-Associate Justice of the Supreme Court Ruth Bader Ginsburg. The movie is a fair introduction to the history of the Ginsburg’s life events. The characters are reasonably well-constructed, and their relationships are the main focus of the film. Yet it is the history, and not the characters themselves, that really engage the viewer.
Where complexity lacks, sentimentality fills in
This is not to say that the characters are bad. Ginsburg’s character (played by Felicity Jones) is performed and written quite well, and she has many quotable one-liners, usually taken from the words of the real Ginsburg.
In thematic terms, the characters might be said to lack complexity, but such things are inevitable when attempting to stay true to the facts. Glorification of the featured Ginsburg family is also inevitable when the screenplay was written by Ginsburg’s nephew, Daniel Stiepleman.
Ginsburg’s husband, Martin, is depicted as the perfect dream spouse and seemingly the only “enlightened” man who is fully supportive of Ginsburg’s career. Martin serves only to emphasize how great Ruth is, however.
For instance, when Martin, who is also a law student at Harvard, gets ill, we see Ginsburg take over his Harvard classes on top of her own in stride. Later, it is Martin who brings Ruth the tax case that they will work on together and Martin who repeatedly insists that Ruth take to spotlight in the courtroom.
A significant portion of screen time was dedicated to domestic power struggles and squabbles between Ginsburg and her strong-willed daughter, Jane. These were almost entirely irrelevant to the plot but were intended to fill out the characters a bit more and humanize them.
When Ginsburg hits a strategic dead end in her tax law case — arguing that a man should get a tax deduction so that he can hire a nurse to help care for his aging mother, like women get — she travels with her daughter to meet Dorothy Kenyon, a well-known equal rights lawyer. The character of Kenyon denies helping them in any way, thereby making the trip, and time the audience spends watching it, meaningless until Ginsburg finds herself out in the rain with her daughter trying and failing to get a taxi.
Here we see a group of construction workers slander the women, and Ruth’s daughter shouts back at them rather than taking Ginsburg’s advice to ignore them. In that instant, Ginsburg has a lightbulb moment in which she realizes change has come in the new generation, and her daughter is a strong, grown woman. (All very sappy.)
Cinematography shines, villainy is simplified
But I said this was mostly good, right? It is the impact of the case, which opened the door to equalizing the rights of men and women in some existing laws and the story the writers are trying to tell that makes the movie compelling. While the plot can become mawkish and simplistic, the cinematography is excellent.
The composition of scenes and use of jump cuts is perfect and generally facilitates a deeper understanding for the points the filmmakers are trying to make. These traits are strongest in the beginning of the film.
In one of the first scenes we see a group of men, all in grey suits, tall, with the same short haircuts, marching into an impressive gothic auditorium. Then, in the midst of them, we see a glimpse of shoulder-length brown hair, a shot of high heels marching to the step, a swaying blue skirt. Then they all sit down. We then see Ginsburg’s awed face as she looks around, trying to find the eight other women in the Harvard Law School class of 500.
The dean speaks. “What does it take to be a Harvard man.”
Such well-trimmed scenes are prevalent in this movie. It seems the film is often at its best when few words are spoken, though it does fall victim to the cinematic transgression of one-sided villainizing.
You see it in movies that get overly focused on their message. In this case, the message of feminism. Movies like these get so fixated on the message they want to convey that they end up dissolving the complexity of their “villains” so that the “other side” becomes stereotyped.
In “On the Basis of Sex,” we end up seeing the bad guys as a bunch of old white male professors and lawyers lounging around in a dark, smoky room plotting against the righteous, feminist heroine (really, this is an actual scene).
The problem with this is not the message itself, but that it weakens the complexity of the opposition. In turn, this weakens the true message by making it more attackable in the real world.
For example, in movies such as this, the aggressors are easily won over by a well-timed (often not really that great) one-liner from the protagonist. Other times, they are so nasty that they reveal themselves to be purely evil rather than just holding a number of disagreeable viewpoints.
The message often gets hit a little too hard on the nose in “On the Basis of Sex.” The bad guys emphasize every use of the word “man” and the pronoun “he” to sound prejudiced. Every disagreeable character also produces the most sexist and weak-minded arguments. This isn’t to say that all these things never happened or don’t happen, but this movie takes it far enough at times to make it feel unnatural and exaggerated.
“On the Basis of Sex” is worth seeing, though. Why? First, the dynamic between Ginsburg and Martin, her husband, is endearing. They are a team you can’t help but root for.
Second, Ginsburg is depicted as a strong, intellectual female role model, something of an epic hero in her own narrative.
As a not-so-subtle commentary on sexism in our country’s past (with undertones of modern politics), this movie is a fascinating watch. Furthermore, it is incredibly informative and revealing about the reality of just how damaged our laws were in recent decades.