Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s (RBG) legacy as a brilliant, formidable advocate for gender equality precedes her. Unfortunately, her biopic “On the Basis of Sex,” doesn’t seem to capture Ginsburg’s fierce tenacity. The legal drama follows Ginsburg from her time as one of the only female students at Harvard Law School to her first ground-breaking case. Performances by Felicity Jones and Armie Hammer (RBG and her unfailingly supportive husband Marty Ginsburg, respectively) are compelling; choices in acting, cinematography, wardrobe and soundtrack are subtle but deliberate and thought out. Regrettably, the film stumbles through a sensationalized rundown of events that water down RBG’s truly dazzling story instead of heightening the dramatic tension.
The film opens to a sea of white men in dark suits ambling confidently as Harvard’s fight song, “Ten Thousand Men of Harvard,” plays in the background. Amidst the slicked-back hair and polished dress shoes, Ginsburg walks along in a bright blue skirt and heels. It’s an impactful shot with an impeccable choice in soundtrack — the contrast between the genders is impossible to miss. Several scenes, like the opening shot, highlight the obvious inequality between men and women during the late 1950s, but the subtleness of the performances and writing inculcate the point without coming across as overly preachy. For example, during the dean’s welcome speech, Ginsburg looks around the hall, immediately identifying the few women in the room. The small, uncomfortable smile she shares with them speaks volumes: the women have an instant connection and uneasily realize that despite being at Harvard Law, the road that lies ahead is not without obstacles. Certain lines, such as one uttered by Harvard Dean Erwin Griswold, are meant to be frustrating not only to the characters but also to the audience — he invites the nine female law students to dinner only to ask why they deserve the spot over a male applicant (an infamous and completely true question asked by the real Griswold). The film is very good at arousing emotion, to the point of making the audience groan with disgust at the comments and views that some characters have. Over the course of the film, Ginsburg confronts several other lines and circumstances that are equally frustrating without being repetitive. Despite Jones’ tendency to overdo the Brooklyn accent, her performance and the stellar writing are still admirable.
But the true showstopper of the film is Ginsburg’s relationship with her husband, Marty. Ginsburg’s commitment to her partner and determination are certainly emphasized as she assists Marty with his papers, manages her own schoolwork and handles their infant daughter, Jane, but her deeds are not ignored by Marty. As she confronts the steadfast sexism of the world, Marty remains dependable and supportive. Their marriage is the picture of perfection: Marty includes her in his boys-club conversations when she wishes, helps with dinner and the kids and encourages her professional ambitions. Hammer’s dimpled smile and sweet demeanor fit the role of the loving husband fantastically — his encouragements are sweet rather than condescending, as other male characters come off. Their marriage provides a sanctuary from the unforgiving legal world that RBG enters.
Yet despite Ginsburg’s obvious intelligence, accomplishments and tenacity, her personality seems to be toned down. Her toughness is occasionally interrupted by moments of public doubt and panic for the sake of heightened drama. Unfortunately, these scenes detract from the film rather than making it more interesting. Sure, RBG’s gender makes her an underdog, but this sensationalization of true events for the sake of drama and reliance on her rise to triumph means that her history as an astounding, smart-as-a-whip lawyer goes somewhat unnoticed, despite the ending. RBG’s story is truly inspiring, and portraying it as anything less than that is a disservice.
Verdict: RBG’s biopic remains mostly factual to the true, awe-inspiring events. The script and camera shots add a layer of emotion that is only accentuated by Jones’ excellent performance as the titular character, but the film is rendered somewhat unremarkable as it submits to a portrait of Ginsburg that waters down her greatness.