On the Basis of Sex is a no-nonsense, hard-nosed biopic of Ruth Bader Ginsburg, the second woman to ever be appointed to the U.S. Supreme Court. Focusing on the landmark case that launched Ginsburg on her trajectory to the top of the judicial system, director Mimi Leder highlights Ginsburg’s first crack at bringing down the walls of inequality.
The film opens with Ginsburg (Felicity Jones), the sole woman in a sea of men, marching to her first day at Harvard Law School. Immediately disregarded as a woman who is taking a Harvard man’s spot, Ginsburg must work much harder than her peers to gain any respect and credibility. Drawing strength from her husband and fellow law student, Martin Ginsburg (Armie Hammer), she sticks it out and graduates at the top of her class. Even with her impressive credentials, Ginsburg struggles to find a job with a law firm in New York, where they Martin has begun to practice tax law. Defeated and desperate to make a change, Ruth takes a job as a professor at Rutgers. We flash to 10 years later, when the Ginsburgs come across an interesting tax case; Charles Mortiz, a single man in Denver, was denied a personal care tax deduction due to his gender. Sensing an opportunity to shake up the outdated and sexist law, Ginsburg takes the case, while sadly acknowledging that a court would likely be more responsive to a case of discrimination against a man than it would one against a woman.
Leder and writer Daniel Stiepleman manage to elegantly convey a rather complicated tax law case, which doesn’t always make for white-knuckle entertainment. Justin Theroux shakes up what could have been very dry proceedings as Mel Wulf, a charismatic and calculated legal director at the ACLU, and the sharp script and compelling performances manage to imbue the potentially by-the-book retelling of the case with sufficient heart and urgency.
On the Basis of Sex does a masterful job showing the struggles Ginsburg dealt with on a constant basis, from being a woman in an overwhelmingly lop-sided “boys club” to taking care of her sick husband when he receives his cancer diagnosis. Life was a constant uphill climb for Ginsburg, and Leder and Jones impressively deliver an engaging and eye-opening look into her failures, successes, and what it takes to be great.