It would be difficult to find anyone who hadn’t either heard the name Ruth Bader Ginsburg, heard her nickname “the Notorious RBG,” or seen one of Kate McKinnon’s SNL skits poking fun at the seemingly eternal 86-year old Supreme Court Justice. In recent years, Ginsburg has become a beacon of gender equality and the front line against any adjustment to U.S. law which sought to restrict any person or persons. Given her heightened notoriety, it’s no surprise that 2018 saw two films hit theaters with Ginsburg as the central figure. The first, documentary RBG, explored the individual, as well as her reputation, from childhood to present. The second, On the Basis of Sex, takes a more narrow view, electing to focus on what screenwriter, and nephew to Ginsburg, Daniel Stiepleman sees as seminal moments of her early career. Directed by Mimi Leder (The Leftovers/Deep Impact) and led by Felicity Jones (The Theory of Everything) as Ruth and Armie Hammer (Call Me By Your Name) as husband Martin, On the Basis of Sex should be a 1-2 punch which captures the energy of Ginsburg’s reputation and solidifies her role in changing the course of discussion around gender equality for audiences worldwide. Despite possessing all the right pieces, the whole of the film takes you to the places you expect to go without the sense of drive or excitement you’d expect.
While the costume design by Isis Mussenden (Masters of Sex) captures the look of the various periods the story follows and Leder’s direction makes sure to capture all the right notes in making Basis evoke a larger-than-life feel, where Basis really succeeds is in the performances from Jones and Hammer. It’s not their individual works which stand out, though these excellent performers are never dull , but their chemistry as Ruth and Martin. Whenever they share scenes together, it’s easy to understand the core of the real-life marriage between the Ginsburgs. In a film like this, that’s the key element: making the story relatable, grounded, and yet somehow epic. In their scenes, Jones and Hammer convey a relationship that could take on the world, if necessary, and come out on top, not due to the fact that both Ruth and Martin are brilliant individuals, but as a result of their tenacity and loyalty to each other. So while the design and direction do well in capturing the look of the Ginsburgs, it’s the combined efforts of Jones and Hammer which capture the spirit of them. In that spirit, audiences can understand why Ruth’s legacy is already so strong.
But a film needs more than spirit to succeed. In this case, the structure of the narrative is a double-edged sword in that it is a strong way to present Ruth Bader Ginsburg and is also the weakest way to present her. Again, Basis is not a documentary, however, it’s only through off-handed remarks or background materials that the audience knows of Ginsburg’s life prior to joining Harvard Law. We have no sense of her upbringing, which would be foundational for her motivation, or how she met Martin. Yes, Basis is her story, but the story of Ruth’s success is connected to the supportive role Martin played. Getting some sense of how they got together prior to the start would imbue some of the later conversations with the emotional weight they are meant to possess. Instead, it sounds like a standard marital squabble of the era, with a pinch of modern feminism through in for good measure. Even without concrete foundational information, Basis neatly structures one major event to another, crafting a narrative which flows from beginning to end. As nice as this is, there’re only two moments when a year is provided: once when Ruth is seeking work post-law school and once just before she learns of Charles Moritz. This is only significant as an observation as it relates to how the story views time. We’re not given an anchor at the start, so the audience is given no way to track one significant moment to another, nor to understand how much time has passed. As such, it makes the moments when we are told the time period stick out strangely. Finally, there is the sequence the whole of Basis builds toward: Mortiz v. Commissioner of Internal Revenue. Stiepleman choose wisely to make this case the film’s selling point as it directly serves as the spring board for Ginsburg’s work moving forward. However, there’s something about the sequence which feels as though it’s playing to the audience for what they expect a scene like this to be versus the reality of it. By designing the scene around the emotion instead of the person, it loses the humanity essential to the moment.
Almost as though adding insult to injury, the special features for Basis are fairly sparse. Considering the legacy of Ginsburg and her current notoriety, it’s surprising that only three short videos are provided on the home release. Though each one does offer a bit of insight into the making of the film, neither “A Supreme Team: Making On the Basis of Sex,” “Legacy of Justice,” or “Martin and Ruth: A Loving Partnership” do much beyond providing a touch of color to what the film presents. There’s no deeper dive into the creation of the film, why this specific portion of history is focused upon, or anything that expounds upon the film experience in a meaningful way. While Basis is by no means intended to serve as a documentary or an all-encapsulating story of Ginsburg’s life, it’s strange that a film so eager to prop up the esteemed judge would be so light on supportive content which would take excited audiences further into the life of the subject.
For fans of Ruth Bader Ginsburg, On the Basis of Sex is a fine cinematic recreation of the landmark case from which the rest of her career is built. It captures an era which, despite its distance, continues to linger in the background of modern society as issues of gender remain part of the national discussion of quality. Backed up by a great supporting cast of Kathy Bates, Justin Theroux, Sam Waterston, Stephen Root, Jack Reynor, and Cailee Spaeney, Basis is never a dull experience, even if it often feels like a light-weight one.
BLU-RAY™, DVD & DIGITAL BONUS FEATURES:
- A Supreme Team: Making On the Basis of Sex – Pull back the curtain and see how this incredible team of collaborators brought this true story to the big screen.
- Legacy of Justice – A deeper look at how Ruth Bader Ginsburg pioneered gender equality in America and gained her seat on the Supreme Court.
- Martin and Ruth: A Loving Partnership – An intimate look at the symbiotic marriage between Martin and Ruth Ginsburg, and how it helped shape Ruth’s perspective as a judge.
Available on Blu-ray, DVD, and digital now.
Final Score: 3 out of 5.