This Is a Movie Review: Felicity Jones’ Spirited Ruth Bader Ginsburg Portrayal Helps ‘On the Basis of Sex’ Overcome Some Biopic Clichés

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CREDIT: Focus Features

This review was originally published on News Cult in December 2018.

Starring: Felicity Jones, Armie Hammer, Justin Theroux, Cailee Spaeny, Sam Waterston, Stephen Root, Jack Reynor, Kathy Bates

Director: Mimi Leder

Running Time: 120 Minutes

Rating: PG-13 for The Occasionally Offensive Language of the Law

Release Date: December 25, 2018 (Limited)

It is slightly disorienting to have both a documentary and a based-on-true-life narrative film about the same living person open in one year. But for certain subjects, there is value be to had in exploring familiar territory via multiple formats. For someone as influential as Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, her increased level of media attention has not diluted her potential for cinematic inspiration. On the Basis of Sex, Mimi Leder’s portrait of a young and hungry Ginsburg, wisely focuses on one chapter in her legal journey. And when it missteps, it is not because it retreads the same territory that RBG already covered sufficiently.

The focus is on the 1970 case of Charles Moritz, a never-married bachelor caring for his sick mother who is denied a caregiver tax deduction because at the time it was available only to women, widowers, and divorcees. Ginsburg, who was then a law professor at Rutgers, teams up with the ACLU to take on Martin’s case, and in addition to representing this one man, they set out to demonstrate how so much of the U.S. legal code discriminates (as the title says) “on the basis of sex,” and how that harms both women and men. That could be cinematic overreach, except for the fact that the real Ginsburg has very much committed her career to making the law more equitable.

On the Basis of Sex works best when it focuses on the truths of relationships, and there is plenty of material to be mined within the Ginsburg household. Ruth and her husband Marty (Armie Hammer), here seen as a fast-rising tax lawyer, are equal partners, though not without their disagreements (like any marriage). But what makes their tension bearable, or even admirable, is that it is based on a shared desire to fight for what is right. Ruth’s relationship with her teenage daughter Jane (Cailee Spaeny), however, is much more explosive, in the way that mother-daughter relationships often are at that age. You kind of want Jane to cut her mom some slack, because she is Ruth Bader Ginsburg after all. But sometimes kids can be their parents’ toughest critics, sometimes unfairly, sometimes rewardingly, or both in this case. There are a few moments that reek of over-inspirational biopic excess, like Ruth suddenly becoming struck with inspiration in the middle of a rainstorm. But for the most part, On the Basis of Sex knows how to capture the fight for justice and its beating human heart.

On the Basis of Sex is Recommended If You Like: Inspirational clichés, To Kill a Mockingbird, Legally Blonde

Grade: 3 out of 5 Closing Statements

This Is a Movie Review: ‘RBG’ Presents Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s Story as a History of American Justice

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CREDIT: Magnolia Pictures

This review was originally published on News Cult in May 2018.

Starring: Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Gloria Steinem, Nina Totenberg, Clara Spera

Directors: Betsy West and Julie Cohen

Running Time: 97 Minutes

Rating: PG for Eyeroll-Style Rebukes to Years of Discrimination

Release Date: May 4, 2018 (Limited)

RBG is not so much about lionizing Ruth Bader Ginsburg as much as it is about capturing the moment of Ruth Bader Ginsburg. It is compelling in that regard because the fact that a woman achieves her greatest fame in her eighties, for whatever reason, is notable in and of itself. Ginsburg’s singularity is understandable insofar as becoming a justice on the United States Supreme Court is typically the culmination of a decades-long career, but her uniqueness is nonetheless still remarkable. Directors Betsy West and Julie Cohen make the case that this moment is richly deserved, as Ginsburg has played critical roles in key moments in American legislative history. This is a documentary that makes the case for someone who has so assiduously made many cases for others.

As a progressive-minded individual, and a fan of Ginsburg’s already, I am pre-disposed to enjoy a doc that takes an admiring approach towards her. But as a critic, I am always inclined to wonder if I have fallen prey to a bit of hagiography. I imagine this film would not have gotten made if not for the existence of the “Notorious R.B.G.” tumblr, but this is not the “RBG memes” movie. It puts in the work to justify why this story is worth being told. In clear, efficient terms, it presents how Ginsburg was integral in multiple landmark decisions involving gender equity, as she rectified institutional discrimination that had been hurting both men and women. And as much as RBG reveals how Ginsburg deserves gratitude from certain constituencies, it does not turn a blind eye to her more questionable moments, as it examines the appropriateness, or lack thereof, of her critical comments about Donald Trump during the 2016 campaign.

Overall, RBG demonstrates admirable commitment to the concept of cura personalis, Latin for “care for the entire person” (an idea that graduates of Jesuit institutions will intimately recognize). This is surely not the first documentary focused around the totality of an individual, but this particular doc displays care for the entire person more than most, whether or not its makers are familiar with any particular term. It is hardly groundbreaking that a chronicle of Ginsburg’s career is accompanied with stories of her family life, or friendly interactions with her colleagues, or her reactions to Kate McKinnon’s SNL impression of her as a Def Jam-style comedian. (It is perhaps a little bit surprising, though, that we also get to see footage of her daily workout routine.) Ultimately the value of a film like this is fully in focus in the scenes with Ginsburg and her granddaughter, law student Clara Spera (who is equal parts admiring of the public figure and loving of the family member), and that value is that everyone should be treated with such thorough, compassionate care.

RBG is Recommended If You Like: Ruth Bader Ginsburg the Person, Ruth Bader Ginsburg the Justice, Ruth Bader Ginsburg the Meme, Kate McKinnon’s impression of Ruth Bader Ginsburg

Grade: 3.75 out of 5 Dissents