Despite the Role’s Lack of Range, Felicity Jones’ Ruth Bader Ginsburg Grows on You

Felicity Jones in On the Basis of Sex.

Felicity Jones in On the Basis of Sex. Jonathan Wenk / Focus Features

For a more comprehensive dossier on the invincible life and honorable career of Ruth Bader Ginsburg, I advise all interested parties to check out RBG, the riveting documentary by Julie Cohen and Betsy West. But for an excellent companion piece, On the Basis of Sex is a perfect book end. After recently surviving a fall that resulted in five broken ribs and surgery for lung cancer, the indestructible Supreme Court justice is back in the saddle and going full steam ahead at a time when America needs her most. This movie, rather stodgily directed by Mimi Leder but nevertheless scrupulous and valid, focuses on her early years as a lawyer when she first became impassioned by the fight for gender equality. Some subjects grow weightier and more substantial with time, and this one has never been more relevant.

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This slick, conventional biopic begins with Ruth “Kiki” Bader’s acceptance into Harvard Law School in 1956, one of only nine women in a class of 500. Stubborn but strong, she was off to a bad start from the first day because of her gender, condescendingly reminded by Harvard Dean Erwin Griswold (Sam Waterston) that the female sex was inferior and there was no place in law for anyone except men.

(3/4 stars)
Directed by: Mimi Leder
Written by: Daniel Stiepleman
Starring: Felicity Jones, Armie Hammer, Justin Theroux
Running time: 120 mins.

For Ruth, played with conviction, resolve and a not always comfortable Jewish-American accent by British actress Felicity Jones, every day was a struggle to prove her professors wrong, and indeed the men in her life are all depicted as ponderous and second-rate, except for her husband and fellow student Marty Ginsburg, who was prepping for a career in tax law. Armie Hammer doesn’t look anything like the man he plays in real life, but he’s so self-confident and appealing in the way he deletes all of the period notions of how men should behave in the 1950s, and in the way he complements his wife by making her his equal (or vice versa, since he often  does the cooking to ease her workload and after their first baby, he changes the diapers, too). When Marty is diagnosed with testicular cancer, Ruth  takes over his courses, and when he recovers and launches his career in 1959 with a New York law firm, she drops out of Harvard and transfers to Columbia, to the dismay of Dean Griswold.

Mother, wife, Jew and a woman in a profession dominated by men, she had to work twice as hard as everyone else. Getting a job with a New York law firm was even harder, so she taught for awhile before trying her first case. This part of the film is slick and unexceptional, but it’s a mere prelude to the 1972 case before the 10th Circuit Court of Appeals in Denver that she tried and won, reversing decades of discrimination in courtrooms from coast to coast. It’s an actual case about a single man named Charles Moritz (an attention-getting performance worth noting, by Chris Mulkey), who was refused a tax deduction by the IRS for the hiring of a full-time nurse for his dying mother. Mrs. Ginsburg declared the ruling unconstitutional and, with her husband as her law partner, she went to the front lines to prove the illegality of a prejudice against both men and women “on the basis of sex.”

Her goal was to change all federal laws that either supported or divided the courts on the subject of gender equality, and her modus operandi was to question everything and take nothing for granted—a strategy she still employs to this day. All of the legal points are made in the script, but not clearly or entertainingly enough to keep an audience fascinated, and the legal talk is too technical, too overloaded with rhetoric, to appeal to the masses. The case made her famous and paved the way to her eventual appointment to the U. S. Supreme Court in June 1993. The Senate confirmed her nomination 96-3.

Some critics have complained that the Ruth Bader Ginsberg you get in this movie is too somber and humorless, but the screenplay is by Daniel Stiepleman, Justice Ginsberg’s real-life nephew, who knows her better than any Hollywood hack, so I’ll trust him over everyone else. His script covers its bases concisely, but the disappointing lack of excitement is covered by inspired performances. Justin Theroux is fine as the director of the ACLU who supports her in the Denver case, and so are Cailee Spaeny as Ruth’s combative teenage daughter, and Kathy Bates as one of her first feminist influences. Armie Hammer is exemplary. Felicity Jones grows on you, although I agree that for such a strong, influential woman, the role of Justice Ginsberg as written doesn’t require much range. She goes through the whole thing with a set jaw and only a wee trace of a smile.

For an authentic hero for the ages, I guess you could hope for a livelier and more colorful celebration, but the indestructible icon is now celebrating her 25th year as a Supreme Court justice and going full steam ahead, so I raise a glass to any movie about her, no matter how they tell her story. Long may she reign.

Despite the Role’s Lack of Range, Felicity Jones’ Ruth Bader Ginsburg Grows on You