After graduating at the top of her class at Columbia Law in 1959, following a two-year stint at Harvard Law, Ruth Bader Ginsburg (Felicity Jones) pounds the pavement in Manhattan looking for a job at any law firm that will interview her. On her 13th attempt, her interviewer, an otherwise sympathetic man impressed by the young woman’s credentials, still can’t help reducing Ginsburg to her socially prescribed gender role, quipping, “A woman, a mother, and a Jew to boot! I’m surprised they let you in the door.” It’s a kind of backhanded compliment, even if the man does look at the spunky and intelligent Ginsburg with a glint of admiration. But the wives of his other employees wouldn’t take kindly to a pretty young woman working so closely with their husbands, so Ginsburg is unceremoniously sent on her way.
This latest setback, which leads Ginsburg to put her dream of becoming a high-powered attorney on hold in order to teach law, plays like any of a number of “a-ha” moments in director Mimi Leder’s On the Basis of Sex that reduce Ginsburg’s life to a series of clearly defined hurdles and overemphatic realizations. But it’s also one of the rare sequences where Ginsburg is rendered somewhat visibly shaken by the patriarchal stranglehold that grips the American legal system. Throughout the film, even the seemingly good guys in Manhattan law firms won’t touch her with a 10-foot pole.
Rather than peel back Ginsburg’s outer layer of steely resolve to reveal the complexities of her inner world, Leder presents us with an icon in the making. Indeed, the Ginsburg of this film is no mere human, as she’s lionized and canonized through saccharine melodrama until she resembles something closer to a superwoman—and one with her own origin story.
While On the Basis of Sex opens with Ginsburg at Harvard, it’s when her teenage daughter, Jane (Cailee Spaeny), chides her for talking about social change in a classroom rather than taking to the streets that Ginsburg transforms into the arbiter of social justice we know today. Jane says, “It’s not a movement if everyone is sitting. It’s a support group.” Despite depicting Ginsburg’s ardent passion for equality from her days at Harvard through her decade-plus teaching career, the film foolishly suggests that all Ginsburg needed was a clever gibe to provoke her to truly put her beliefs to the test in the public sphere. Soon after, Ginsburg’s husband, Marty (Armie Hammer), informs her of a tax law case, involving a single male caregiver (Chris Mulkey) who was denied an exemption that was available only to women. And thus her career as an attorney diligently battling gender discrimination is born.
From this point on, the now-emboldened Ginsburg runs all but untouched through a gauntlet of sexist men on her way to making history as both friends and enemies alike line up as staunch protectors of the patriarchy. The most egregious of these shady characters are Ginsburg’s former teacher, Professor Brown (Stephen Root), and the Dean of Harvard Law School, Erwin Griswold (Sam Donaldson). Both men were thorns in her side throughout her time at Harvard, and their return to the film in the third act as open supporters of Ginsburg’s opposing counsel bluntly sets them up as smug and smarmy villains—something even further codified by their meetings in smoky backrooms, where they plot to shut Ginsburg’s case, and cause, down.
Ginsburg’s life was, and still is, full of men hoping for her failure. Even the head of the ACLU, Mel Wolf (Justin Theroux), who helps the future Supreme Court justice prepare for trial, condescendingly tells her to keep her “emotions in check.” But the film renders Ginsburg as little more than an indefatigable force, both humorless and impenetrable. We’re allowed to catch glimpses of her vulnerability in scenes during her court prep and throughout her opening remarks as she presents her first major case, but such concessions to nuance are few and far between. On the Basis of Sex is too often busy revering Ginsburg for her confidence and brilliance to bother with presenting her as a living, breathing human being. Even when the real RBG shows up ascending the stairs into a courthouse, the slow-motion, glossy visuals and soaring strings ensure she remains more myth than woman.