One could say the presentation of legendary justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg in On the Basis of Sex is a tad too tidy. It’s very much a Hollywood-movie version of her story, and the closest to showing any “warts” is when she’s trying too hard for her noble cause. Surely this is too sanitized a version of her, stripping her of any character flaws she must realistically have.
To that I say: So what? A nation needs its iconic heroes to be lionized for generations, maybe even centuries, and our nation is in desperate need of women in those roles. Why not Ruth Bader Ginsburg? Seriously, erect a ridiculously oversized monument to this woman on the National Mall. People can then spend decades smugly pointing out her character flaws and evolving imperfections of idealism just as they do Abraham Lincoln now.
All this is to say: I enjoyed On the Basis of Sex more than I expected to. Predictably, it’s far from a perfect film. But its heart is squarely in the right place, even in the face of rational arguments against the commodification of feminism, which these days co-opts Ginsburg herself far too often. But I have a counterpoint to such arguments: Have we not become rather fond of the phrase “representation matters”? On the Basis of Sex is not just some throwaway, forgettable movie about a great historical figure. It presents a woman who leads by example and amassed extraordinary accomplishments in the midst of limitations young people today can scarcely imagine. And even now, if this movie sells even a halfway decent amount of tickets, plenty of young women will see themselves in her, and be inspired to follow in her footsteps, expanding on those accomplishments.
So, yes, the telling of the story goes by the typical Hollywood playbook. Sometimes it’s even a little corny, as with successive close-ups of appellate judges’ faces trying a little too hard to look contemplative as Ginsburg’s persuasive arguments are convincing them. At another point, female Harvard Law School students are asked by the Dean to justify their having “taken a spot that could have gone to a man.” Some moments in this movie are a little on the nose. There’s even a self-consciously “woke” line by a white man arguing that black men or members of religious minorities actually have it worse in this country than women.
And, well, maybe they do — although it’s worth noting the argument avoids mention of women who are also black or part of religious minorities. But this is not their story, and they deserve more than token reference in this story. They deserve their own movies that should be supported and championed in their own telling. On the Basis of Sex is the specific story of how a pioneering woman changed the course of American history — and, all things considered, tells it pretty well. I found myself easily absorbed by it, anyway. It even takes care to mention, more than once, the pioneering women who came before Ginsburg, on whose shoulders she stood. One of them is even played by Kathy Bates.
This is a movie people of multiple generations can enjoy and appreciate, inspiring an appropriate amount of respect and, sure, even reverence for this woman. She, along with a husband (played affably by Armie Hammer) who survived testicular cancer, faced seemingly insurmountable odds. She has a young daughter, Jane (Cailee Spaeny), who is more interested in street activism than judicial ethics — and debates moral nuances of To Kill a Mockingbird with her firm but loving mother. And Felicity Jones strikes a nice balance as Ruth herself, walking a fine line as a feminist with a certain softness while also defiantly staring back at all the male condescension surrounding her. Would this be the right time to mention how much I loved her black skirt suit with white trim?
On the Basis of Sex has its contrivances, of the sort I often complain about in other movies, but I easily surrendered to them. Sometimes, contrivances work. Director Mimi Leder and writer Deniel Stiepleman want us to see Ruth Bader Ginsburg as a legend because that’s what she is. How else could the brief shot of the real Ginsburg herself at the very end hold such power? It brought a tear to my eye.