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Friday, January 11, 2019

On the Basis of Sex

Considering how many recent biopics have disappointed, it's a nice change of pace that On the Basis of Sex actually succeeds at telling the story of Ruth Bader Ginsburg.  The movie succeeds where recent attempts at telling the stories of famous people have failed by focusing on a central issue, rather than trying to fit their whole life into two hours.  We learn just enough about the subject matter to admire her, and the movie manages to create a compelling narrative, rather than cherry picking different facts or moments from Ginsburg's life.  From its narrative flow, to the strong lead performance by Felicity Jones, the movie just works.

The movie basically focuses on two key moments in Ginsburg's life.  It kicks off in the late 1950s to early 60s, where we find her as a student at Harvard Law, along with her husband Martin (Armie Hammer).  As the couple, both Jones and Hammer create an instant warm and occasionally funny chemistry, which immediately draws us into their relationship, which is important, since their family dynamic and relationship plays a big role in the overall story to come.  Martin is a supportive and devoted husband, but when he develops testicular cancer, Ruth must pull double duty.  She handles both her husband's classes, as well as her own, and helps take care of her husband at home, while also taking care of their one-year-old daughter.  Despite all of this, she manages to graduate at the top of her class, despite the heavy load she took on, as well as facing inherent sexism on the campus, being one of the first women enrolled at Harvard.  After graduating, and after her husband has recovered, she goes out into the world, only to find that no law firm will hire a woman lawyer.  She is forced to accept a teaching position, where she helps young women learn about law, all the while thinking she gave up her chance make a real difference herself.

This first hour of the film does a great job of setting up Ginsburg's beliefs and strong personality, but it is the second half of the film where she truly gets to stand out, and makes up the most effective part of the story.  Here, Ruth gets the chance to join her lawyer husband to represent Charles Moritz (Chris Mulkey) in a suit against the IRS.  The case revolves around the unequal provisions between men and women.  With the help of fellow lawyer and childhood friend Mel Wulf (Justin Theroux), Ruth and Martin take their case to the Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals, and this begins Ruth's career built around gender equality.  The movie wisely puts all of its attention on the beginning of her career, rather than try to tackle too much of her life and legacy, which have already been explored in a wonderful and recent documentary.  This is the story of how her career began, and how she began to develop the drive that would shape the rest of her career.

On the Basis of Sex splits its running time between the engaging court case and career of Ginsburg, and the domestic aspects of her life, mostly dealing with her strong-willed 15-year-old daughter, Jane (Cailee Spaeny), who is being drawn into the woman's movement of the early 1970s.  This allows the audience to see Ruth both as a professional, and as a mother, who shares her daughter's attitude and will, but is also afraid that Jane will get hurt at some of the rallies she attends.  There are certainly some contrived family scenes that definitely seem to have been thrown in by screenwriter Daniel Stiepleman, but these are offset by the family dynamic that the actors are able to create during some of the film's quieter and less dramatic moments.  There is also more than enough momentum created by the scenes surrounding the Moritz case that creates enough energy and intrigue to carry the audience through some of the more obviously "dramatized" moments. 

But it is the performance of Felicity Jones that holds our attention throughout.  From her mannerisms, to her effective Brooklyn accent, she does a wonderful job of portraying Ruth's journey from a wide-eyed hopeful student, to the beginnings of the confident woman she eventually became.  A smart move that the film makes is that it shows us how she struggled early in her career.  She could be easily led or manipulated in the courtroom, as evidenced by a mock trial that some friends set up in her home, trying to prepare her for what to expect.  She could be brash, and open herself to obvious attacks in the courtroom, and the film shows us how she honed her skills and eventually learned to control herself.  With so many biofilms treating their subject matter like saints or talented individuals right out of the gate, I appreciate it when one actually shows us the process and learning that the figure at the center of the story had to go through.

The film's director, Mimi Leder, has worked largely in television with a few feature film credits here and there.  This may lead you to think that On the Basis of Sex will be a fairly safe and cut and dry take.  And while there's certainly nothing inventive here, the performances and the way the script wraps us into the court case that kick-started Bader's career do more than enough to grab your attention.  If anything, the movie can only make the audience want to look up the documentary, RBG, which goes much deeper into her life and story.  I see nothing wrong with that.

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