“Politics is the strong and slow boring of hard boards,” Max Weber once observed, although the same could be said for any challenge to the cultural or legal status quo. Change often comes at the speed of continental drift and requires a paradoxical balance of fiery passion and boundless resolve to see it through. On the Basis of Sex depicts a Ruth Bader Ginsburg who didn’t so much see a ceiling of glass as a roof of hard boards. Not content to simply break through, Ginsburg resolved to tear the entire roof off the building. This is an important story and it gets competently told, although some of the message gets diffused by the sanitized, manipulative handling of the storytellers themselves.
It’s 1956 and Ginsburg (Felicity Jones) marches into Harvard Law School, part of an early female crop of inductees. Casually repugnant misogyny greets her like an arctic gale: At a dinner “honoring” the new women students, the dean rises and speaks through a snickering smile. “If everyone could stand up, tell us your name and where you’re from, and why you’re taking a spot at Harvard that could’ve been filled by a man.” Ginsburg and her ailing husband (Armie Hammer) end up graduating from Columbia, whereupon she finds no one in Manhattan eager to hire a woman. (Despite graduating at the top of her class, one prick interviewer recommends her to the secretarial pool.) Ginsburg takes a job teaching at Rutgers, where the idealistic zeal of the students combines with the rebellious pushback from her teenage daughter and inspires her to join the fight for gender equality. Ginsburg takes a landmark case (ironically, involving a man) and uses it to confront centuries of entrenched doctrine.
Like almost all modern biopics, On the Basis of Sex takes the legacy of its subject and scrubs with a soapy brush till everything is clean and shiny. The Ginsburg depicted here is more heroic symbol than actual character: Her only major flaws are that she cares too much and fights too hard. The cinematography and production design render everything gorgeously antiseptic. Not since Mad Men has this period looked so hopelessly laminated. Almost all the men, outside of Ginsburg’s husband, are shown to be starchy, mustache-twiddling dickheads. These Evil Eight clowns lounge in cloak rooms, puff stogies, and plot Ginsburg’s destruction. No doubt, men can be pigs and plenty of them stood in her path up the mountaintop, but after a while this one-dimensional treatment grows almost cartoonish. The film commits further sin by underlining every emotional beat with big, sappy orchestral cues. Ginsburg was and is a towering figure in the quest for equal rights, so she doesn’t need hackneyed embellishments from the filmmakers to magnify her impact. I understand this film was written by her nephew, but I wish all involved could’ve resisted the urge to dump so much syrup on the plate.
Still, On the Basis of Sex does have a quite a few positives. Jones brings plenty of light and life to Ruth Bader Ginsburg, a woman who excelled at mixing frustration with a ferocious intellect to forge an adamantine argument. Hammer is quietly compassionate as the bright, decent husband who does what he can to keep up. As always, Kathy Bates adds a little blunt force humor to the proceedings as Dorothy Kenyon. But the film’s greatest trait lies in Ginsburg herself. She bored through the boards and broke down the walls, and many now might take all that she did for granted. Ginsburg didn’t just argue the law, she set out to change it for the better. Her accomplishments resonate through this movie’s flaws, and make On the Basis of Sex more compelling than it otherwise might’ve been.