On the Basis of Sex (2018) ☆☆☆(3/4): A lawyer who changed the world


“On the Basis of Sex” focuses on the early career period of US Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, a legendary American figure who is still actively keeping on in the US Supreme Court for civil equality and liberties even at this very point. Although it occasionally feels a bit too conventional considering its extraordinary human subject, the movie did a fairly respectable job on the whole, and it surely helps that the movie is supported well by a solid lead performance to be appreciated.

In the beginning, we see young Ginsburg (Felicity Jones) attending the enrollment ceremony of Harvard Law School along with hundreds of male students and a few other female students besides her in 1956. While she and other female students are ready to do their best, they are not so welcomed much by the dean of Harvard Law School at the following evening party, and that is just one of many obstacles they are going to face during their first year at this prestigious law school.

Nevertheless, Ginsburg does not give up at all while also excelling most of her colleagues – even after her husband Martin (Armie Hammer), who has also studied at Harvard Law School, gets suddenly sick due to cancer. Besides concentrating on her study as usual, she also steadily helps him continue his study at their home, and, fortunately, he is eventually recovered from his illness and then graduates some time later.

When Martin is subsequently hired at a New York law firm, Ginsburg requests a permission to finish her Harvard law degree at the Columbia University in New York City, but, not so surprisingly, the dean refuses to make an exception, and she has no choice but to transfer to the Columbia University without any advantage. She eventually graduates from the Columbia University, but no law firm in New York City wants to hire her just because of her gender, so she comes to accept a teaching position at Rutgers Law School instead, and we soon see her teaching her students on the sex discrimination in laws.


As feeling how much the American society is changed for women around 1970, Ginsburg feels more compelled to do more for women’s rights than before, and that is when her husband gives her a certain tax case in Denver, which is involved with a male bachelor denied of tax deduction for the nursing care for his old mother. Although she is not particularly interested in this case at first, she soon comes to discern an unlikely opportunity from this case. If she makes a successful legal argument on the sex discrimination in the tax law preventing the plaintiff from getting his tax deduction, this legal victory will definitely open the door for more court rulings against the sex discrimination in many other laws, and that will legally guarantee gender equality more than before.

Of course, the situation does not look that bright to Ginsburg from the very beginning, because, though Martin is ready to support her personally as well as professionally, others around her including Mel Wulf (Justin Theroux), who works for American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), are not particularly sure about whether she will succeed. The US Department of Justice is already quite ready for winning the case, and their young representative attorney James H. Bozarth (Jack Reynor) gets the full support from his boss, who does not want any ‘radical social change’ which may be resulted from this case.

What follows next is a series of predictable dramatic ups and downs, and the screenplay by Daniel Stiepleman, who is incidentally the nephew of Ginsburg, is rather clichéd particularly during this part. It tries to generate some dramatic tension as Ginsburg often gets frustrated with numerous obstacles on her road to the Court of Appeals, but the result is a bit mild and contrived while also slowing down the narrative to some degree, and I must say that I felt impatient from to time while watching this part.


Nonetheless, under the competent direction of director Mimi Leder, the movie remains to be driven by its earnest storytelling, and it eventually arrives well in the expected finale sequence unfolded in the Court of Appeals, which is evidently spiced ups with some fictional elements. We already can see from the very beginning that we will get a big moment when Ginsburg courageously stands up and then impresses the judges in front of her with her shrewd and succinct legal argument, but that moment is delivered with considerable sincerity and restraint at least, and we are touched as being reminded of how the subsequent court ruling did open the door for more changes for gender equality during next several years.

Above all, Felicity Jones ably carries the film with intelligence, sensitivity, and dignity, and it is certainly another notable performance in her growing career which has been more prominent since her Oscar-nominated performance in “The Theory of Everything” (2014). She is also supported well by other notable prominent cast members including Armie Hammer, Justin Theroux, Kathy Bates, Sam Waterson, Jack Reynor, and Stephen Root, and the special mention goes to Cailee Spaeny, who is effective as Ginsburg’s feisty adolescent daughter.

In conclusion, “On the Basis of Sex” is your typical plain biographical drama film, but it is engaging nonetheless mainly thanks to Jones’ commendable performance, and it will certainly make a nice double feature show along with “RBG” (2018), an acclaimed Oscar-nominated documentary film about Ginsburg’s life and career. Sure, it is flawed to some degree, but it did its job as much as intended, so I recommend it without grumbling much.


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