As we have already seen several times in the field of acclaimed movies in 2018, biopics are very tricky beasts. If you point your film solely in the direction of the inspiring, you could end up with a good movie that also risks being a little too glossy or even weightless, as is the case with Golden Globe winners like “Green Book” and “Bohemian Rhapsody.” If you veer off into the experimental a little more, as instant classics like “BlacKkKlansman” and “Vice” did, you risk alienating mainstream audiences (something I’m certain directors Spike Lee and Adam McKay were perfectly happy to do, but the point still stands) in your quest for breaking new ground with the format. Then there are the films that try to happily walk the line between powerful filmmaking and powerful biography, a line so thin that films that walk it successfully often come out stiff.
“On the Basis of Sex,” director Mimi Leder’s biopic of Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, is a film that does its best to walk this line, showing its subject as a flawed but driven human being while also attempting to go for the inspirational gut punch. While it’s far from perfect in this pursuit, the film has a big enough heart that it somehow avoided becoming just another stiff history lesson, and that alone is enough to make it a film that’s very much worth your time.
The film begins as Ginsburg (Felicity Jones, who has yet to get the level of credit she deserves as an actress) is starting her time at Harvard Law School, and wisely picks as its focus a landmark tax law case Ginsburg and her husband Martin (Armie Hammer) take on pro bono in order to hopefully set a precedent for sex discrimination in United States law. As the case unfolds, we see Ginsburg’s struggles as a parent, the discrimination she faces as a woman in the male-dominated profession of law, her own personal doubts about the case and, of course, her rising star as a lawyer and expert in the field of discrimination.
The film wisely does not veer too far into Ginsburg’s career as a Supreme Court Justice, or even far beyond the case at its center, which is an impulse far too many other storytellers would have likely indulged in if given the same subject matter. Biopics which attempt to cover the subject’s entire life are far too often disjointed and stunted, and that’s sometimes true of “On the Basis of Sex” in its first act, which is devoted entirely to placing Ginsburg in the position to take the case in the first place. In its opening minutes, the film sometimes feels far too on-the-nose in its pursuit of a setup. It builds themes that become predictable not because of how they resolve, but because of how they emerge. It’s an interesting structural problem, but it doesn’t weigh the movie down.
The reason it doesn’t weigh the movie down is the unshakable chemistry that emerges in those early minutes between Jones and Hammer, who pop right off the screen from the moment you see them both. Each is a star in their own right, with talents we have yet to see the full breadth of, and together they absolutely shine. Jones isn’t trying too hard to affect Ginsburg’s voice and mannerisms in any exact way. Her impression, if you can call it that, is subtle and endearing without being distracting, and it allows her to really pour everything she’s got into the film’s most emotional moments. Hammer, one of the most natural actors of his generation, is equally winning. Throw in scene-stealing performances by Justin Theroux as ACLU lawyer Mel Wulf and Kathy Bates as legal activist Dorothy Kenyon and you’ve got a terrific ensemble.
“On the Basis of Sex” does not remake the wheel of biopics. Its strength is not in challenging the format in any direct way, but rather in understand exactly how and when to focus itself on the right things. It takes a little too long to get there, but once the film chooses its focus and latches onto it, you will find it hard to look away. It’s a cliché to say biopic set decades ago are the kind of films we need right now, but this film hits the right notes in 2019 better than “Green Book” does, and it deserves more attention than it’s getting.