On the Basis of Sex arrives at a bit of a disadvantage, given that it's being released just a few months after the documentary RBG. That film, about Supreme Court justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg, was a surprise hit, earning $14 million at the domestic box office -- a blockbuster number for a non-fiction film. If you've seen RBG, the impact of On the Basis of Sex might be a little diminished because you already know the story and have heard it straight from the subject's mouth, as opposed to in dramatized form. Even so, the sheer power of the story makes seeing this movie worthwhile.
The first act follows Ruth (Felicity Jones) as a Harvard law student. She is one of very few women at the institution, which clearly favors men in ways both big and small. Although the odds are stacked against her, an uncommon determination shines through. When her husband Martin (Armie Hammer) is diagnosed with cancer, she takes all his classes in addition to her own.
Then the movie settles into its main thrust. Ruth gets a teaching job at Rutgers because none of the law firms she applies to will hire a woman. Her particular specialty is gender discrimination, something she feels is far too prevalent in the United States. Martin presents her with a tax law case he's working on, pertaining to an unmarried man denied a deduction for taking care of his ill mother. It's a benefit easily handed out to women or men whose wives have become incapacitated. Ruth believes that if she can successfully argue that this represents discrimination based on sex, then she will establish precedent to take on similar issues where women are the ones discriminated against, including unequal pay and penalizing female workers for becoming pregnant.
On the Basis of Sex follows Ruth as she enlists the ACLU to help her take the case to court, then begins to assemble her argument. There's an unmistakable poignancy in the way she repeatedly meets resistance because of her gender at the same time that she's fighting such things. Dialogue throughout the film spotlights some of the myriad ways women have been legally discriminated against over the decades. Director Mimi Leder (Deep Impact) imbues the movie with a palpable feminist spirit; Ruth is mad as hell and she's not going to take it anymore.
Anyone who has seen the RBG documentary or knows some fundamental legal history already knows the outcome of the case and how it helped cement Ginsburg's legacy. Advance knowledge doesn't detract from the pleasure of seeing how it was accomplished -- how this brilliant legal mind saw through the potential rebuttals of men in advance so that she was prepared to counter them to a degree that was difficult to assail.
Felicity Jones is excellent as Ruth, capturing the righteous anger that drives the character while still showing a more vulnerable side. The danger here would have been to make Ruth a larger-than-life crusader. Jones' performance works better because she hints at occasional self-doubt or insecurity. Armie Hammer is adequate in his role, although he doesn't quite capture the extroverted, jovial personality that Martin Ginsburg had in real life. The love between them comes off much more strongly in the documentary than it does here.
On the Basis of Sex handles its subject matter in a familiar, reverent manner. You won't find any cutting-edge storytelling. Additionally, the movie's final shot -- a blatant attempt at sending the audience out on an inspirational note -- feels slightly insulting to the performance Jones has just spent the better part of two hours giving.
What Ruth Bader Ginsburg did, however, was nothing short of remarkable. It quite literally changed America for the better. On the Basis of Sex shows step-by-step how that process started, so we understand just how uphill her climb was. Any small imperfections aside, the magnitude of the true story and the strong work from Felicity Jones make this movie impossible to ignore.
out of 4
On the Basis of Sex is rated PG-13 for some language and suggestive content. The running time is 2 hours.