With the U. S. currently run by the living embodiment of everything she stands against, a biopic about Ruth Bader Ginsburg was always going to be a risky endeavour. Revered in dominant liberal circles as a feminist icon, Ginsburg’s life and career have acquired a legendary status that makes any attempt at assessing either with any degree of objectivity almost a fool’s errand, particularly in a cultural environment saturated by performative politics. A carefully-designed, thoughtful film would not only inform the audience on the facts of Ginsburg’s career but also shed light on the evolving symbiotic relationship between her private experiences, politics and patriarchal mores.
Rather than trace her rise to Associate Supreme Court Justice, the film focuses on her formative years leading up to her taking the Moritz v. Commissioner case, in which she represented a man whose claim to tax deduction as a caregiver for his elderly mother was denied on the basis of his sex and lack of previous spouses. We first see Ruth (Felicity Jones) on her first day at Harvard Law School, her blue dress-clad figure slowly emerging from a uniform sea of dark suits and ties, in a visually striking opening scene – slightly dampened by the previous insertion of a close shot of her legs – that sets the film’s main ideas in motion: a lone, independent-thinking crusader, fighting for visibility in a world marked by sexual and ideological homogeneity.
And indeed, Ruth finds herself struggling against entrenched sexist attitudes from her peers, including dean Erwin Griswold (Sam Waterston), fellow students and even the doctor treating her husband (and fellow law student) Martin (Armie Hammer) for testicular cancer. This persists long after college, as she is eventually forced to settle for teaching law instead of practising it full-time after getting rejected by yet another law firm on the grounds that “the wives get jealous”. Even when Martin hands her the fateful Moritz case, she still has to contend with the condescending tone policing of ACLU lawyer Mel Wulf (Justin Theroux), the criticism of her blossoming activist daughter Jane (Cailee Spaeny) and the disillusioned dismissiveness of legal feminist icon Dorothy Kenyon (Kathy Bates); almost every character Ruth encounters that isn’t her husband or one of her students is an obstacle to either knock down, sidestep or turn to her side.
The problem is that these characters have little depth beyond their function relative to furthering or hindering Ruth’s progress. Top-tier actors like Waterston and Bates end up wasted as real human beings reduced to thinly-drawn stereotypes while the rest of the supporting cast passes through almost invisibly. Every character is here to amplify Ginsburg’s greatness, either by informing us of it directly or by giving her something to react to in a way that indicates we should do likewise.
Ironically, the hagiographic nature of the screenplay ends up working against its own subject as it limits the breadth of Ginsburg’s humanity: Ruth and Martin are so consistently right, so impeccable in their demeanour and actions that they become scarcely recognizable as human, despite solid performances from Felicity Jones and Armie Hammer. Occasions where they are allowed to be flawed and complex people, such as a dinner party during which Martin passively laughs and grins along as his colleagues make patronizingly sexist remarks about his wife, are too rare for them to register and not followed up on. Only Ruth’s dynamic with Wulf, a putative ally who constantly diminishes the reality of patriarchy and criticizes her attitude and goals with sexist microaggressions, feels fresh and alive but his arc’s payoff is too arbitrary to feel satisfyingly organic.
This is aggravated by Mimi Leder’s visually bland direction, which clearly aims for something similar to Spotlight’s sober restraint but matches neither that film’s attention to its characters’ psychology nor its emotional expressiveness. Leder never takes the time to set the mood and let a scene draw the viewer in, instead directing most scenes as build-ups for the next; with rare exceptions, such as the first meeting with Mel Wulf or later with Charles Moritz (Chris Mulkey) and his mother, almost none exists purely for itself. Only in glimpses does the film come alive through flashes of inspiration, such as when traditionalist arguments about gender roles are followed with cuts to Martin happily cooking for his family, or when Ruth and Wulff’s debate about society’s treatment of women is briefly interrupted by a female assistant serving them coffee.
It comes as no surprise that the film’s screenplay, from which most of these problems stem, was written by Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s nephew, Daniel Stiepleman – further proof, after Green Book, that a person’s relative is not necessarily best-placed to tell their story. But more than this year’s baffling Best Picture winner, On The Basis Of Sex is closer to the spirit of similar cinematic authorized biographies like The Theory Of Everything or the more recent Rocketman; films about then-living subjects that were made with their approval in mind. This film plays less like a work of art designed to illuminate a real human being’s life and feelings at a certain point in time than as an extended PAC-produced clip designed to inspire crowds at a political rally. If Ruth Bader Ginsburg liked it, more power to her, but as both an important public figure and a complex human subject, she – and film audiences – deserved a more fitting portrait.
Dir: Mimi Leder
Scr: Daniel Stiepelman
Cast: Felicity Jones, Armie Hammer, Justin Theroux, Sam Waterston, Kathy Bates
Prd: Jonathan King
DoP: Michael Grady
Music: Mychael Danna
Runtime: 120 mins
On the Basis of Sex is available on Digital, Blu-Ray and DVD now.