On The Basis of Sex (PG13)
Starring Felicity Jones, Armie Hammer, Justin Theroux
Directed by Mimi Leder
US Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg is so important a progressive figure in the national political debate dividing America right now that when she got a lung-cancer health scare recently, the liberal half of America almost had a collective heart attack. It's okay, folks, chill; she's reportedly recovering.
Which makes On The Basis of Sex, a compressed, old-fashioned TV movie-ish biopic kinda a halfway deal for people to know her — an 85-year-old badass who fought for women's rights — just a little bit better and basically not much more. You get to know Ginsburg's history and her socio-cultural significance as defined by her work, family and unshakeable dedication to the cause of righteous equality for all mankind, both male and female.
But yet, you don't really know who the notorious RBG, as she's affectionately known now, truly is. Coincidentally, there's also an in-depth documentary called RBG released last year to go with this film as a companion piece of sorts.
This film — directed by Mimi Leder (Pay It Forward) and written by Daniel Stiepleman, Ginsburg's nephew — centres primarily on Ginsburg’s early days as a breakthrough university student, a tremendous wife supporting a sick husband, and then a crusading proto-feminist warrior fighting an obtuse but landmark case of gender inequality.
Back in 1970, she fought for the rights of a man in Denver hiring a nurse to care for his ailing mom. Problem was the state of Colorado wouldn't give a tax deduction because an unmarried man couldn't claim a tax refund for something which a close-minded society deemed at that time was essentially a woman's job.
The trick, Ginsburg and her allies saw, was to challenge this injustice as a case of reverse discrimination. To get universal rights for women, they needed to show that the same rights applied to a discriminated man too.
It's all quite confusing and convoluted and we, watching this drama in our part of the world, would likely be majorly stumped by the ins and outs of the heavily legislated US judiciary system on trial here. It's hard to follow but you'll get the big picture. One tip to understanding this dense legalese jungle — lawyers in America argue cases at state level, in this case, Colorado — to change them into the big ones which go all the way to the Supreme Court of America, the highest court of the country, where Ginsburg currently sits as one of nine judges.
Right at the beginning, the young Ginsburg (Rogue One: A Star Wars Story’s Felicity Jones in an earnest performance) is a feisty, already-married iconoclast in her salad days. She breaks into the uber-prestigious Harvard Law School in the late 1950s, excels in her class, and then has the audacity to piss off its fossilised, misogynistic head, Erwin Griswold (Sam Waterston), by defecting to arch rival Columbia University.
Ginsburg's tax lawyer-husband, Martin (The Social Network’s Armie Hammer), a cancer survivor, is hired by a firm in New York and she seeks a transfer to Columbia, NY, to finish her law degree which Griswold refuses to approve.
The conservative Griswold is the institutionalised antagonist scoffing at the absurd notion of equality for the sexes which threatens his cozy, comfy man's world, aka “the natural order of things”.
He would represent the government later in its clash with Ginsburg in a climactic court trial. One fun bit — government computers, powerful and intimidating in those early-tech times, don't faze the notorious RBG.
The headstrong gal doesn't submit to any man's unreasonable whim and pushes on as a no-nonsense pint-sized titan, juggling a trying family situation at home, endemic prejudice at work and a seemingly impossible battle to essentially change America as she knew it.
Here, there and everywhere, she is frustrated at every disrespectful turn on the basis of her sex, which, as her office-girl typist wisely advises, is a word that sounds much better to an uneasy, unready society when it's changed to the less threatening term of “gender”.
“A woman, a mother, a Jew to boot, I'm surprised they even let you through the door,” one law firm boss quips as he condescendingly turns Ginsburg down. You'll get angry when you see her having to give up her dream of becoming a lawyer fighting cases in court but instead settles into being a professor teaching young idealistic students who remind her of herself.
Now, because you know this phoenix will rise eventually, these constant put-downs, while being good scenes to savour, are still the perfunctory character-building markers of standard filmmaking as this movie fulfills its Hollywood formula of staging multiple setbacks before a singular massive payback. It confines this flick to a straightforward one-track route with no surprises and makes it somewhat schmaltzy and predictably usual for a highly unusual woman.
The most fascinating part, though, is the domestic situation of Ginsburg which makes the work-life debate in our time now look like a picnic. Rocked by the swirling calls of 1970s student protesters and civil rights groups for urgent social change, which turn the head of even her own burgeoning-radical teenage daughter, Ginsburg and hubby Martin become a highly-effective two-pronged lawyer combo attacking the system.
The answer to a woman achieving her ambition here is to have, basically, the Best Husband In The World. The tall, handsome Hammer is the Greek god to Jones' determined, dark-haired Xena: Warrior Princess. He is a tax expert appealing to the head, while she is a human rights champion rooted in the heart.
It looks too good to be true. But it's a distinct pleasure, in our cynical times, to see this pair of legal eagles working sweetly and smoothly together in such perfect synchronicity.
Hopefully, if this film doesn't inspire you to change the world, at least it'll move you enough to change to a better partner. (***)
Photo: TPG News/Click Photos