Mimi Leder (director of the little seen PAY IT FORWARD and made-for-TV, THICK AS THIEVES) tackles a female issue film, ON THE BASIS OF SEX, an American biographical legal drama film based on the life of Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg. The film is written by Daniel Stiepleman, with an impressive cat that includes Felicity Jones as Ginsburg, with Armie Hammer, Justin Theroux, Jack Reynor, Cailee Spaeny, Sam Waterston, and Kathy Bates in supporting roles.
If when watching the film, everything looks familiar, perhaps you might have seen a documentary released early this year called RBG, the letters stand for Ruth Bader Ginsburg – the subject of ON THE BASIS OF SEX. The doc concentrates more on her career and what she has done to promote progressive change in the legal America system. Leder ON THE BASIS OF SEX, opening during Christmas plays like feel-good stand up and cheer move while trying to keep to the spirit and truth of RBG, a legend in our times. (One can imagine director Leder herself trying hard o get work as a female director as one notices her dry spell of films after PAY IT FORWARD.)
The film covers the full life of Ruth Ginsburg. The first third shows her struggle in an almost all-male (she was one of only 10 females) Harvard Law School. The film is quick to emphasize that Ruth had more on her plate than her fellow undergraduates. She was not only married with a kid, but her husband (Armie Hammer) suffered from cancer with hospitalization. Ruth looked after him, their kid while attending his classes and her own the same time. She came up top of her class. The second part shows her at her job after graduation. She teaches while inspiring her students to change the world. Her subject was “Sex discrimination and the Law”.
Leder’s film reveals important truths. The success of a woman depends on the support of her husband. Clearly Ruth’s husband was always behind her, giving in and urging her to strive on. The same can be likely said for husband of Prime Ministers Margaret Thatcher and Teresa May. However, Ruth and her husband’s relationship appears too perfect. “You are ready for this. You have been ready for this your whole life. Go in there and let the judges see the real Ruth Ginsburg I know,” is the husband’s best advice, obviously spiced up int he script for artistic purposes. Despite the husband’s support, it must be certain that they must have had huge arguments that would have rocked their marriage. No major disagreements are on display except for one minor argument which involves their daughter, now grown up.
English actress Felicity Jones is winning as Ruth Ginsburg. Armie Hammer, also delivers a remarkable performance in a little written role. But the best performance comes from little known Charles Milky who plays Charles Moritz, Ruth’s caregiver client denied his tax benefits for looking after his ailing mother based on his gender.
It is clear that more cane learnt about Ruth Ginsburg by watching the doc RBG than this Hollywood dramatization. Audiences have seen similar films before, like MADE IN DAGENHAM and even the lighter and more hilarious LEGALLY BLONDE. What is clear is that Ruth Ginsburg is still recognized as a major force in changing sex discrimination in America. Her story needs be told in one form or another.
So the ultimate question is whether Ruth Ginsburg’s achievement in life can be trivialized into a 2-hour feel good movie? Surprisingly, the answer is yes, judging that the real Ruth Ginsburg appeared the end of the film implying her endorsement of the film which was written by her nephew, Daniel Stiepleman. At least the words at the start of the film declared the film ‘inspired’ rather than ‘based’ on a true story. But as far as feel-good movies go, Leder’s film is a textbook example of how to achieve the task
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