Review: 'On the Basis of Sex' looks at RBG's origin story

In this image released by Focus Features, Felicity Jones portrays Ruth Bader Ginsburg in a scene from "On the Basis of Sex." (Jonathan Wenk/Focus Features via AP)

The most fascinating part of the 2018 documentary “RBG” wasn’t its look at U.S. Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s status today as a judicial rock star, the subject of “Notorious RBG” tattoos and Kate McKinnon sketches.

It was the recounting of her pioneering work as a gender rights lawyer in the 1970s, patiently building, link by link, a chain of legal precedents against sexual discrimination. That part of her story gets the biopic treatment in Mimi Leder’s “On the Basis of Sex.” While Daniel Stiepleman’s screenplay fudges the facts here and there to amp up the drama, enough of the real woman shines through in Felicity Jones’ fiery performance to make it a satisfying, if formulaic film.

When we first see Ginsburg in 1956, she’s one woman in a sea of blue- and gray-suited men entering the halls of Harvard Law School. The Harvard fight song “Ten Thousand Men of Harvard,” fittingly, plays on the soundtrack.

Ginsburg was one of just nine women in her class, and the jaw-dropping displays of sexism in the film really did happen. The dean (Sam Waterston) really did ask the women why they took a spot at Harvard that could have gone to a man. Ginsburg’s answer, in real life and in the movie, delivered with dipped-in-acid sweetness: understanding the law would help her be a better wife to her husband, fellow law student Marty Ginsburg (Armie Hammer).

Hammer plays Marty as a husband seemingly ahead of his time, unwavering in his support of his wife and her career. And the devotion runs both ways. When Marty is treated for testicular cancer, Ruth attends all his classes (as well as her own) so he doesn’t fall behind in his studies. Hammer seems to revel in the chance not to play an alpha male, and their loving, mutually supportive relationship is the best thing in the movie.

Ruth graduates with high honors, but finds she can’t get a job as a lawyer at even the lowliest of law firms. She reluctantly takes a job teaching law at Rutgers. The film presents Ginsburg as resentful at being denied the chance to try a case in court and even insecure about her abilities as a trial lawyer. The intent is clearly to position her as an underdog and make her later victories in court seem that much sweeter, but it doesn’t ring true to the Ruth Bader Ginsburg we think we know of either then or now.

In 1970, Marty rekindles her interest in trial law with a tax law case he comes across, in which a Denver bachelor named Charles Moritz (Chris Mulkey) taking care of his elderly mother was denied a caregiver exemption because he was a man. Because the case reverses the expected gender roles, Ruth thinks the case will have a better shot at success than past discrimination cases.

“Sex” gets satisfyingly deep in the weeds with the legal arguments that Ginsburg marshaled, trusting that we can follow the twists and turns of the case and its broader implications. But elsewhere, the film plays a little looser with the facts to heighten the drama, adding obstacles in Ginsburg’s path that weren’t there in real life.

An ACLU lawyer (Justin Theroux) who disses Ginsburg’s abilities in court seems like a smarmy shyster straight of central casting, and a conflict between Ginsburg and her hippie daughter (Cailee Spaeny) feels manufactured. A climactic trial scene is played like a come-from-behind sports movie, with Ginsburg fumbling the ball during her initial arguments and having to throw a Hail Mary during her rebuttal. Yeah, that never happened.

Yet I found myself caught up in “On the Basis of Sex,” pulled along by the strength of the performances and the inherent drama of the legal case. When Jones’ Ginsburg levels her steely gaze and calmly outmaneuvers the old legal lions who have underestimated her, it’s hard to stifle a cheer.

And when we finally see the real Ginsburg at the end of the film? She has that same steely gaze.

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Rob Thomas is the features editor and social media editor for the Capital Times, as well as its film critic. He joined the Cap Times in 1999 and has written about movies, music, food and books.