I don’t know if this has always been a thing, but lately I’ve been noticing a correlation between documentaries on a certain subject and full-fledged biopics on that same subject, whereby they are released relatively near one another, usually in that order too. Case in point, the first half of 2018 – a banner year for documentaries as it was – saw the critically acclaimed documentary RBG hit theaters, its title the initials of its subject, United States Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg. Cut to seven months later, and audiences are treated to a theatrical telling of the icon’s story in the form of On the Basis of Sex, with Oscar nominee Felicity Jones taking on the lead role. It’s not the first time this has happened, with 2014’s Citizenfour being the first feature to cover the Edward Snowden scandal before the aptly titled Snowden came out in 2016. Hell, even 2018’s most popular documentary, Won’t You Be My Neighbor? will be getting a companion piece this coming November in the form of A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood, with America’s dad Tom Hanks starring as Fred Rogers. Oftentimes however if a documentary is successful it begets a traditional biopic later on, like Robert Zemeckis’s The Walk being released seven years after Man on Wire. Of course, there’s no feasible way On the Basis of Sex could have been spawned by RBG, only seven months separating them, but the biopic does well to complement its sister film, as well as the figure in question. While its approach may appear conventional on the outset, the movie does well to paint its leading protagonist in a nuanced light, not falling into the common trap of merely providing a puff piece, which it certainly could have settled for given the current feminist climate and likely demographic of the audience. Not to mention it features a killer performance from Felicity Jones, who is more than able to hit those dramatic beats that are going to leave you cheering when all is said and done.
Covering the late 1950s and the early 1970s, On the Basis of Sex shines a light on the case that made Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s (Felicity Jones) career, and made her an icon of the women’s movement. An aspiring lawyer, Ginsburg studies at both Harvard and Columbia Law School, in addition to assisting her husband Martin’s (Armie Hammer) studies when he falls ill to cancer. Despite graduating at the top of her class, Ginsburg fails to find work at any law firm, which all candidly inform her it is not due to a lack of acumen, but because she is a woman. Still hoping to make a change in the world, Ginsburg takes on a professorship at Rutgers Law School, teaching “The Law and Sex Discrimination.” Years later, Martin brings a case to Ruth’s attention, in which one Charles Moritz (Chris Mulkey) is denied a caregiver tax deduction due to the fact that he is a man. Realizing that this case could be the powder keg that sees sex discrimination deemed unconstitutional, Ginsburg is quick to take the case. Yet the road to undoing centuries of sexism will be extremely difficult, as patriarchal institutions seek to see her fail.
I’ll admit, I didn’t have high expectations for this one. When the first trailers dropped last July, I’d pegged this one as a run-of-the-mill, wannabe Oscar contender. While it didn’t find itself garnering any awards, I was still pleasantly surprised to note that it didn’t diminish itself by pandering to popular opinion. Don’t get me wrong, it’s a crowd-pleaser all right, one with the expected message attached, but it’s still interested in digging deep not only into the root of the issue, but digging deep into its subject. Instead of making the mistake of simplifying Ruth Bader Ginsburg down to simply her achievements, On the Basis of Sex is also interested in breaking down her personality and who she is as a person, paying special attention to her relationship with her husband and her daughter, played by 2018 breakout star Cailee Spaeny. It’s here that we’re allowed to relate to Ginsberg as a human being, understand her plight and sympathize with her setbacks, before ultimately celebrating with her when she succeeds. I’d hate to be the guy that continually craps on popular movies, but that’s what I was missing from Bohemian Rhapsody, something that was more interested in watering down its true figure and relying on nostalgia if it meant the greater turnout. Not here though, as its intent is first and foremost to tell a worthwhile story and explore relevant themes than it is about lionizing any one person.
Still, this movie wouldn’t work if there wasn’t a solid lead performance filling the shoes of Ruth Bader Ginsburg, and Felicity Jones is surely up to the task. She’s no stranger to garnering acclaim for portraying historical figures, her career highpoint coming in 2014 when she picked up an Oscar nomination for playing Jane Hawking in The Theory of Everything. While neither does her work nor the film itself reach those same heights, it’s still nonetheless an enriching performance to watch, one that’s backed up by a powerhouse cast that includes the likes of Justin Theroux, Kathy Bates and Sam Waterston. Particularly noteworthy here however is Armie Hammer as Mr. Ginsburg, who continues to impress me with the right projects after what one could consider to be a questionable start to his career. It’s not the supporting performance that’s quite on par with his turn in 2017’s Call Me By Your Name, but he certainly hits all the right notes.
On the Basis of Sex is directed by Mimi Leder, who hasn’t had a movie released in theaters since 2000’s Pay It Forward. While she doesn’t have the deepest filmography, and that aforementioned project is the only other one of hers I’ve seen, I’m proud to label this one my favorite of hers. But damn, if A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood isn’t good, it might just ruin Tom Hanks for me.
Eh, probably not. But still.
Final Score: 8/10