On the Basis of Sex

[4 stars]

Who would have thought that a movie about tax law could be so riveting? It brings to mind The West Wing, which famously made the census and picking a postage stamp must-see TV.  But, of course, this film isn’t about tax law, it is about equality and a social movement that still struggles today. In fact, next week will mark the third Women’s March, inspired by the continuing fight against people who would like to throw the country back to an earlier era where women, in particular, were seen as second class citizens at best, and property at worst.

On the Basis of Sex isn’t a perfect movie, but it is a solid one thanks to a heart-felt script and a solid cast. Felicity Jones (Rogue One: A Star Wars Story) takes on the mantel of RBG, bringing her to life as a young woman and, more importantly, a person. With Armie Hammer (Sorry to Bother You) by her side and Cailee Spaeny (Bad Times at the El RoyaleVice) as their daughter, we see a family engaged in the process and devoted to one another’s efforts and successes. Depicting them as a family adds the deeply personal to the deeply political that could have easily overwhelmed the story.

Justin Theroux (Mute), as the ACLU’s Mel Wulf and Kathy Bates (The Great Gilly Hopkins) have nice supporting roles who both guided and impeded RBG at times. But ultimately, they helped push her to becoming the great, practicing jurist she has become.

On opposing counsel, Sam Waterston (Miss Sloane),  who continues his lifelong career of onscreen litigators, got to portray an out and out asshole, mired in a past that is far too reflective of a good part of today’s political world. Along with Jack Reynor (Kin) and Stephen Root (Life of the Party) the three become the voice of fear and oppression. They are true believers, and perhaps a bit too emphatic in their delivery, rather than calm. Emotionally, it is more palatable for them to be evil and wrong, rather than contemplative and wrong, but it made them less believable as people.

That said, the strength of Daniel Stiepleman’s first script is that it tends to remain focused on the human rather than the political in the story. Yes, the law and the impact are central, but the motivations and the impact are all personal. That the real story of RBG is, in fact, a wonderfully dramatic starting point didn’t hurt his efforts.

For all the great joy, impact, and subtlety of this film, Mimi Leder’s direction let it all deflate at the end. Honestly, I was ready to applaud when the final credits rolled, as was the fairly packed theater I saw it in. And then Leder let the story just sort of die with blocks of text. Truly a shame. It didn’t ruin the film, but it certainly robbed it of a feeling of triumph and possibility. And, frustratingly, a small set of edits could have kept up the energy and feeling rolling so that the last moments of zipping into the present would have felt triumphant rather than as a quiet button to the tale. Despite that let down, it does leave you with a sense of how far we have come and what we risk losing as a society if we don’t keep fighting to protect it.

So, yes, you should see this wonderful depiction of Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s life and impact on law in this country. Bring  your daughters and sons or young person of your acquaintance. Remind them how new and vulnerable the law is and society can be, why we fought and why we must continue to fight. Getting entertained at the same time is a nice bonus.

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