Ruth Bader Ginsburg has become a cultural icon, as the fine CNN Films documentary “RBG” made clear. Yet a new movie chronicling an early chapter in the Supreme Court Justice’s career, “On the Basis of Sex,” proves more dutiful than delightful, only stirring to life toward the end.
Felicity Jones plays Ginsburg, introduced in 1956, when she’s one of the few women at Harvard Law School. During a dinner with the starched dean (Sam Waterston), the nine female students are asked point blank to explain “why you’re occupying a place at Harvard that could have gone to a man.”
After a health scare involving her husband Marty (Armie Hammer), the movie rather abruptly jumps ahead to 1970. At that point Ginsburg is teaching law, before she becomes involved in the sex-discrimination case that not only provides the title but which set in motion her scintillating track record arguing before the High Court.
Nobody knows the finer points of the law better than Ruth, but she’s second-guessed regarding her style as she prepares to appear before the U.S. Court of Appeals, and confronted with doubts from colleagues – including the ACLU’s legal director (Justin Theroux), an ostensible ally – regarding whether her approach will really work with the judges.
Jones – who played a different kind of rebel in “Rogue One: A Star Wars Story” – and Hammer have an easy chemistry that reinforces descriptions of the couple’s relationship as a true love story, one in which Marty happily deferred to his wildly accomplished spouse at time when it was much rarer for husbands to do so.
Still, director Mimi Leder (working from a script by Ginsburg’s nephew, first-time screenwriter Daniel Stiepleman) feels like she’s checking off boxes in presenting a story we’ve seen, in one form or another, many times before. While the last act provides a thundering articulation of this moment in the feminist movement, it’s hard not to wish there was a bit more of that in the stately build-up to it.
“On the Basis of Sex” is still worth seeing, not only as a tribute to the jurist nicknamed “Notorious RBG” – particularly with renewed concerns about her health – but for the welcome context that it provides and the cerebral manner in which it explores the legal issues at play. The fact that Ginsburg has generally blessed the movie – never a given when Hollywood puts its stamp on actual events – should also add to its sizzle and credibility.
As a drama, though, the film is just a bit too thin to warrant much more than ending up on the favorable side of a split decision.
“On the Basis of Sex” premieres Dec. 25 in the US. It’s rated PG-13.