The release of On the Basis of Sex, the biopic of Associate Justice of the Supreme Court of the United States Ruth Bader Ginsburg, seems almost fortuitous. Ginsburg has been in the eye of world’s media regularly standing up the current US administration whilst simultaneously recovering from three broken ribs and undergoing a lung lobectomy in 2018 alone. Speaking of last year, the much-lauded documentary RBG came out, following her career from its early days to the icon she is today. And, as of writing, she’s set to make an appearance in The Lego Movie 2 (no, really). In summary, people – left and right – seem to really love Ginsburg, so why not give them a little bit more.
On the Basis of Sex is by no means as comprehensive as RBG, but it certainly tries hard to make you understand Ginsburg’s importance in the political spectrum. Starring Felicity Jones (Rogue One) as Ginsburg, the film begins with her admission into Harvard, before giving the audience a quick tour of her early years and then dropping us into the 70s for what is essentially the meat of the film.
Now a college professor in sex discrimination law, and desperate to make at least a dent in the world, Ginsberg is switched on to the case of Charles Moritz (Chris Mulkey), a man who was denied a tax break to hire himself a carer for his mother. The reason given? Moritz didn’t fit the Internal Revenue Code of being “a woman, a widower or divorcée, a husband whose wife is incapacitated or institutionalised.” Ginsburg chooses to defend the unmarried man, citing that the case challenges the very stereotypes of what men and women do in the eyes of the law.
As a history lesson, On the Basis of Sex is a compelling look at the inherent sexism that could be found in America at that time, whilst highlighting that the fight still continues. Through discussions with the then director of ACLU, Melvin Wulf (Justin Theroux) and her husband Marty (Armie Hammer), Ginsburg dismantles the absurdity of gender-based laws, whilst taking pot shots at those age-old questions of “how come you never see female garbage collectors?” It’s a topic that’s ripe for discussion and, unfortunately, as relevant today as ever.
As a biopic and narrative film, however, On the Basis of Sex doesn’t stand on the conviction of its message, with director Mimi Leder (Thick as Thieves) overplaying numerous scenes, dousing them in overwrought emotion that drowns out what’s being said. In one scene, Ginsburg has her ‘eureka’ whilst out with her political teenage daughter, Jane (Cailee Spaeny). Standing in the rain, and just before looking up to the heavens, she delivers a speech that circumnavigates the laws of “show, don’t tell”. Later on, Ginsburg’s opponents, including her former dean, Erwin Griswold (Sam Waterston), are positioned backlit in darkened rooms, smoking continuous cigarettes and conspiring to take her down. It’s just too much. We know their thoughts are outdated; we don’t need them to be pantomime villains.
Admittedly, broad strokes of emotion like these are the curse of simply too many biopics. Take a look at Hidden Figures’ smashing of a toilet sign scene, for further example. When Ginsburg leaves a room to a soundtrack of revolutionary drums and whistles, or Jones stares at the camera after delivering a potent speech, it’s all very distracting and superfluous.
It’s a film that doesn’t need all these bells and whistles to tell its story. Its message is clear, and its strongest moments are the ones where it boils Ginsburg down to her humanity. Within 15 minutes of the film starting, it reminds you that she was a person who liked to drink, have sex and play charades. She was someone, who despite graduating Harvard and Columbia, still had to learn. It reminds you that political icons don’t just land on earth fully formed, they work hard to get where they are. Overall then, On the Basis of Sex is a less than impactful film that manages to smother an important time in gender politics.
SCREEN REALM SCORE: ★★★☆☆
‘On the Basis of Sex’ opened in US cinemas on January 11 and opens in cinemas around Australia on February 7.