In the opening sequence of Mimi Leder’s feature film “On the Basis of Sex,” set in 1956, swarms of men in black and grey suits march toward what turns out to be Harvard Law School. Suddenly, among those drab masculine multitudes, we spot the back of a single woman in a blue dress: our heroine, the young Ruth Bader Ginsburg (Felicity Jones). To hammer the point home, the soundtrack features the Harvard football fight song “Ten Thousand Men of Harvard.”
Much of “On the Basis of Sex,” the newest entry in an ongoing cultural celebration of U.S. Supreme Court Justice Ginsburg as a progressive icon, is similarly lacking in subtlety. But that doesn’t mean that the film — focused on Ginsburg’s first gender-discrimination case, in the early 1970s — isn’t often stirring, not to mention a worthwhile history lesson. (The 85-year-old justice, whose tenure on the court is of grave concern to liberals, just had two cancerous nodules removed from her left lung.)
The screenwriter of “On the Basis of Sex,” Daniel Stiepleman, is Ginsburg’s nephew, so the film’s treatment of Ginsburg’s life and legal battles is, as one might expect, reverential. Her sole flaws are a certain (laudable) stubbornness and an inability to cook. Jones’ portrait adds some depth, showing the occasional uncertainties underlying the intellectual confidence.
A bigger problem is that Stiepleman’s characterizations of the men blocking Ginsburg’s path tend toward cartoon villainy. Even the legal director of the American Civil Liberties Union, Mel Wulf (Justin Theroux), who eventually lends the organization’s clout to her cause, is more hound dog than ally, undercutting her repeatedly.
The major exception to this parade of Neanderthals is Ginsburg’s husband, the kind, brilliant and handsome tax lawyer Martin Ginsburg (a winning performance by Armie Hammer). He is depicted, with some accuracy, as almost saintly, if less acerbically witty than other accounts suggest. It remains unexplained how he turned out that way, given all the cultural forces pushing in the opposite direction. The movie does provide a somewhat gratuitous romantic coupling — Ginsburg in a filmy negligee, succumbing to her husband’s considerable charms — that underlines the sexual chemistry between the two.
We first encounter the Brooklyn-born, already married Ginsburg as one of just nine women in her Harvard Law School class. It’s not easy to get a contracts professor to call on her, but when he finally does, she shines, to the dismay of her male rivals.
Another challenge is a bizarrely unwelcoming “welcome” dinner, hosted by the troglodytic law school dean Erwin Griswold (a particularly gruff Sam Waterston), at which he demands to know why these women law students are occupying places that would otherwise have gone to men. (This really happened, according to Jane Sherron De Hart’s fine recent Ginsburg biography.)
A nervous but canny Ginsburg says she has enrolled in order to learn more about her husband’s work (he’s a 2L) and become a more “patient and understanding wife.” Griswold approves. The screenplay later features the dean boasting that he fought hard for the admission of women, rendering his disdainful treatment of them all the more baffling. Ginsburg tangles with Griswold throughout the film, including in his role as a U.S. Solicitor General defending outmoded legal precedents. (In real life, Griswold later became a Ginsburg booster, suggesting at least a capacity to evolve.)
Worried about a possible recurrence of her husband’s near-fatal testicular cancer, Ginsburg follows Marty to New York when he finds a job there. She’s obliged to finish her degree at Columbia, graduating at the top of her class. But job offers fail to materialize. It’s still the 1950s, and, though her brilliance is incontrovertible, Ginsburg has three strikes against her: She is Jewish, female and a mother. Not even a second-tier firm will hire her – the interviewer suggests that other lawyers’ wives would become jealous. Fortunately, Rutgers Law School comes through with a professorship. Fast forward to 1970, and Ginsburg is now teaching sex-discrimination law – a field she helped establish – to a seminar of feisty, miniskirt-clad female students (and one man). Meanwhile, her own daughter Jane (Cailie Spaeny) has become a rebellious teenage devotee of Gloria Steinem. A representative of changing times, Jane even faces down street harassment as her mother looks on in awe. (Kathy Bates has a memorable cameo as another feisty woman, the pioneering civil-rights attorney Dorothy Kenyon.)
Fittingly, it is Ginsburg’s tax-obsessed husband who brings her the case destined to jumpstart her constitutional challenge to sex-based discrimination. The plaintiff is an unmarried man, Charles Moritz, denied a $296 deduction for hiring a caregiver for his mother — one that a similarly situated woman would have received. The U.S. government, for some reason, decides to append a list of all federal laws codifying sex-based discrimination to its appellate brief. This turns out not to have been a wise move. After stumbling through a moot court practice session, and almost blowing her appearance before the federal appeals court, Jones’ Ginsburg enjoys a rousing moment of triumph. Finally, all that unglamorous law school labor, as both student and teacher, is redeemed. The victory is only the first brick in a new edifice that will safeguard, and accelerate, the gains of the burgeoning second-wave feminist movement. Watch for the film’s surprise ending, with its hint — again, none too subtle — of just how far women have come.
Julia M. Klein is the Forward’s contributing book critic. Follow her on Twitter, @JuliaMKlein