Release Date(s)2018 (April 9, 2019)
Studio(s)Focus Features (Universal Pictures Home Entertainment)
- Film/Program Grade: A
- Video Grade: A-
- Audio Grade: A-
- Extras Grade: B
Two motion pictures have recently dealt with the career of Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg – the documentary RBG and the drama On the Basis of Sex. The latter stars Felicity Jones as Ginsburg during her rising career as a young lawyer in the 1970s, offering a portrait of the marriage between Ginsburg and her husband Martin (Armie Hammer) and how the family dynamic was affected as she balanced being a wife and mother with studying in law school and forging a career.
The opening shots show the incoming class entering Harvard Law School – mostly men, with Ginsburg dwarfed among them. Facing the era’s biases regarding women, both overt and implied, she applies herself with determination to practice law, overcoming daily indignities, slights, and insults.
Martin Ginsburg is also a law student at Harvard, a year ahead of Ruth. When Martin is stricken with cancer, she not only nurses him through the ravages of chemotherapy, but also sits in on his classes to take notes for him in addition to attending her own classes. Later, unable to secure a job at a law firm despite having graduated at the top of her class, she eventually takes a university job as the token female law professor. Martin, now a promising tax attorney, encourages her ambitions and provides active support by preparing meals and taking care of their kids.
Rather than attempting a sweeping canvas of Ginsburg’s complete career, director Mimi Leder focuses on her involvement in the case that put her on the map – a sex discrimination case in which an unmarried man, Charles Moritz (Chris Mulkey), was denied a tax exemption for caring for his ailing mother at home because the law stipulated that the exemption applied only to women. If discrimination on the basis of sex could be proven for a man, it would set the precedent to strike down all the laws that discriminate against women.
The film deals with the many obstacles Ginsburg faced, particularly from lawyers who attempted to discourage her from pursuing the matter. Ultimately, the ACLU joined the lawsuit – on the condition that Ruth serve as co-counsel and Martin serve as lead counsel. Ruth argued the case before Denver’s 10th Circuit Court of Appeals and won, setting a precedent for other gender-discrimination cases to be heard in the U.S. Supreme Court.
Ms. Jones, short of stature and with a passing resemblance to the young Ruth Ginsburg, portrays her as a restrained but angry maverick leading the legal challenge to gender unfairness. She captures Ginsburg’s quiet self-control and her belief that you have to put in the work to achieve the desired goal. Frustrated by the world of men who dominated the legal profession at the time, she nonetheless persevered, never giving up her dream of changing discriminatory laws.
Director Leder captures the period not only through detailed production design and period costuming but also in the casual sexism so prevalent back then. The notions of male and female roles were so ingrained in society, and had been for hundreds of years, that many people simply took them for granted. Ginsburg was instrumental in changing that. Today, men can be nurses and secretaries and kindergarten teachers, while women can be police officers and fire fighters and soldiers.
Rated PG-13, On the Basis of Sex, written by Ginsburg’s nephew, Daniel Stiepleman, is an amazing story – a Brooklyn-born young woman aspires to become a lawyer, excels at Harvard and Columbia Law Schools, balances family and career, faces sex bias, and becomes a driving force ending gender discrimination. Justice Ginsburg herself makes a brief appearance at the end, a way of signifying that this movie tells it like it was.
The widescreen Blu-ray release is in 1080p High Definition with an aspect ratio of 1.85:1. The presentation features sharp details, especially in the period clothing (stockings with seams, woolen fabric in a sweater, dark suits worn by most of the men). In close-ups, hair strands are clearly delineated and faces reveal pores, freckles, and five o’clock shadow on the men. Many of Ginsburg’s expressions reveal exactly what she is thinking, whether sitting at an awkward dinner with Harvard’s president or preparing to speak before the Supreme Court. The overall palette of the film is fairly dark, leaning toward browns and blacks to emphasize the masculine world into which Ginsburg is immersed. A blue suit she wears as she enters Harvard for the first time stands out as she walks among scores of men wearing dark suits, and later a red sweater, blue blouse, and white coat distinguish her amid the somber color scheme. The Montreal locations that double for New York City effectively convey the Big Apple of the 1950s.
Audio is English 5.1 DTS-High Definition Master Audio. Dialogue is consistently clear and even in scenes with ambient noise, such as the ACLU offices with ringing telephones and the din of background conversation. A party scene in which Marty and Ruth play charades with friends features the excited, competitive voices of the participants, sometimes overlapping, just as in an actual game. In the courtroom scenes, Ruth’s voice is strong, confident, and determined. French and Spanish soundtracks are also included, as are optional English subtitles. A Digital Copy code on a paper insert is also included.
Bonus materials include three featurettes:
A Supreme Team: On the Basis of Sex – Director Mimi Leder, actors Felicity Jones, Armie Hammer, and Kathy Bates, writer/executive producer Daniel Stiepleman, and producer Robert Cort offer their opinions of the young Ruth Bader Ginsburg. The film “wants to deal with a sense of frustration and pain and joy and discovery.” Jones wanted to be true to the woman she was portraying and actually met Justice Ginsburg prior to filming. Leder discussed with Hammer the nature of Marty Ginsburg’s character and how they would bring it to the screen. The film was shot in 34 days, with exteriors filmed in Montreal representing 1950s New York City. Director Leder refers to the film as aspirational.
Legacy of Justice – Ruth Ginsburg was a revolutionary who believed in changing the law bit by bit. She pioneered gender equality and was one of only nine women attending Harvard Law School at the time. The landmark case that she argued involved discrimination against a man because of gender. She “studied hard, worked hard, and made a difference whenever she could.”
Martin and Ruth: A Long Partnership – The story of Marty and Ruth Ginsburg is “one of the great love stories of all time.” Marty supported her at a time when men typically weren’t supportive of women, particularly in the household and caring for children. When Marty got sick at age 25, Ruth attended both her classes and his and nursed him back to health. They weren’t the typical 1950s husband and wife. Marty suspended gender norms of the time. “The greatest thing he did in his life was to let Ruth be Ruth.” The close relationship is shown by the chemistry between Jones and Hammer.
– Dennis Seuling