New in Theaters: On the Basis of Sex

Past the Popcorn provides South King Media with exclusive reviews of Theatrical and Home Video entertainment. We aim to dig just a little deeper than the surface of what we watch.

It was just over a month ago that 85-year-old Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg fell and broke three ribs.  You might think that someone that age would take some time off to recover from an injury like that, but no, the woman referred to affectionately as RBG was back at work only a few short days later.  That level of dedication to her work has been a staple of Ginsburg’s career from day one, as is evidenced in On the Basis of Sex, the new biopic that focuses on her early career and the big civil rights case that first gained her national attention.

The movie opens in the late 1950s when Ginsburg was a new mother and one of the first female students at Harvard Law.  Her husband, Martin, was also a law student at Harvard.  When he suddenly falls sick and is unable to attend his own classes, Ruth steps up to attend classes for both of them.  Unfortunately, even after graduating at the top of her class and being incredibly qualified, she faces a wall of sexism when it comes to looking for jobs in New York law firms.  She is forced to instead take a professorship with Rutgers Law, who themselves were only willing to hire a woman because their lone black professor had recently left and they needed to fill a quota.

Fast-forward eleven years and RBG is still working at Rutgers when the perfect case comes across her husband’s desk.  Although the case is more in his field—he is a tax lawyer—than hers, he immediately recognizes it as something she would be interested in.  The case is Charles E. Moritz v. Commissioner of Internal Revenue and it was a sex discrimination case… against a man.  Ginsburg knew immediately that should this case be successful, it could set a precedent and open the floodgates for the overturn of several laws enforcing gender discrimination.  The question is, can a college professor with no courtroom experience stand up to the panel of male judges and break down their own biases?  Well, let’s just say that about twenty years later she was approved to the Supreme Court by a vote of 96-3.

On the Basis of Sex is a fairly straightforward biopic.  In fact, it is very similar in format and tone to last year’s Marshall, starring Chadwick Boseman as fellow Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall—both focusing on one crucial case in their subject’s career rather than attempting a tell-all style biography.  It may be simple, but it is a crowd pleasing formula that has worked for years and it serves its purpose here as well, largely thanks to its incredibly talented cast.

Felicity Jones, an Oscar nominee as Stephen Hawking’s wife in The Theory of Everything, plays Ginsburg in her first role since successfully stealing the Death Star plans in Rogue One: A Star Wars Story.  Jones is a great match for Ginsburg.  She is easy to root for and yet she is equally successful at making us feel just how difficult of a task Ginsburg was faced with in her fight for gender equality.  She is given excellent support by Armie Hammer as Martin, a man who was driven and successful in his own right, but always able to find the time and energy to support his wife’s dreams and ambitions as well.  Justin Theroux, meanwhile, takes advantage of the film’s showiest role.

The courtroom scenes—both the real court and the mock court—are the standouts in the film.  They are brutal in their depiction of the challenges and barriers that are thrown in Ginsburg’s face in her pursuit of a cause that seems almost common sense, now, even if we are still far away from actual equality.  These scenes are enough to make anyone watching reconsider any possible career plans of being a lawyer.  But it is through these scenes that we get a true idea of just how intense Ginsburg’s drive had to be in order to overcome the obstacles she faced—the drive that ultimately led her to the Supreme Court.

On the Basis of Sex is not the first movie about Ruth Bader Ginsburg to be released this year.  The first was the documentary RBG released in the summer, and by all accounts it is the deeper, more thorough examination of her life and what makes her such an important figure, but to compare the two movies to each other would be a disservice, as they each seek to tackle her legacy in completely different ways.  On the Basis of Sex may be the narrative film equivalent of the CliffsNotes version of RBG’s life, but it is nevertheless informative and entertaining—a natural crowd-pleaser.

On the Basis of Sex opens today at the AMC Pacific Place 11 in downtown Seattle.


Find tickets and showtimes on Fandango.