I’ve covered a handful of clever, covertly-feminist films this holiday season with strong female leads and powerful stories of what it means to be a woman in this world. While those other films (please see reviews of “The Favourite”, “Mary Queen of Scots” and even – don’t laugh – Jennifer Lopez’s “Second Act”) certainly detail the fight for equality, none can really compare to the mother of all fighters, the OG trailblazer: Ruth Bader Ginsburg.
She wasn’t a long-reigning queen or a strong, independent woman from the Bronx, but she has led the way for the equal rights movement for this generation, and she’s still fighting for it today at 85 years young. Ginsburg has also become somewhat of a “woman of the people”. She’s been canonized by modern feminists as a mascot of sorts and dubbed “Notorious RBG”, a nod to Notorious B.I.G., a famous American rapper with very little in common with the small-framed Supreme Court Justice except, perhaps, their ferocious nature.
As if a not-so-subtle culmination of this year’s focus on resilient women in history, “On the Basis of Sex” is aptly released on Christmas Day as a feel-good option that is sweet, inspiring and safe for the entire family. It doesn’t ruffle any feathers or go anywhere too deep – it traverses too much time for it to fully realize what it wants to achieve – but it is a syrupy, sentimental “based on a true story” that allows you to root for an underdog and learn a thing or two about American history.
Felicity Jones stars at Ruth Bader Ginsburg, one of a handful of female law students at Harvard University. The sexism is blatant: from professors refusing to call on her in class to the school’s president holding a special dinner to uncover why it was so important for them to “fill a spot at Harvard that could have gone to a man”. Luckily she has the support of her progressive-thinking, totally swoon worthy husband Martin (Armie Hammer) who isn’t afraid to do some of the childrearing and can handle a skillet better than work-oriented Ruth.
From there, the film jumps quickly forward to New York where Marty takes a job and Ruth, denied her request to finish her Harvard degree from Manhattan, graduates from Columbia and struggles to find employment because of her gender. Eventually she resigns herself to a post as a professor, making less money than her male colleagues, where she teaches a fiery and fired-up class of youth making noise out in the world. They are picketing and marching for the equality of all, including women, and it is their energy that drives Ruth to make the world a more tolerant place.
It isn’t until a unique tax case slides across Marty’s desk that a fire is lit that she realizes how she can fight the gender gap in the Supreme Court with, for the first time, a real shot at winning. Against all odds, the “old boys’ club” takes a hit, and RBG, the war hero seeking to dismantle it altogether, becomes a suffragette’s martyr.
The film won’t rock your world; it’s a slightly sterile, long-winded, far-reaching look at a fascinating woman that whittles her down to a few cleverly written scenes aimed at your heartstrings, hitting them a little too squarely. Hammer is charming, and Jones, despite her sometimes-questionable accent, is a strong, alluring version of RBG. The essence of what she accomplished is relayed to the audience thanks mainly to director Mimi Leder’s vision. Otherwise, Daniel Stipleman’s script is a little all over the place to make it a memorable biopic. But as a holiday watch, Ruth’s fight, her ups and downs, and, eventually, her triumphs will give you all the feels you may seeking at the theater.