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Starring RBG

by David-Elijah Nahmod

Justin Theroux, Felicity Jones and Arnie Hammer in director Mimi Leder's "On the Basis of Sex." Photo: Focus Features
Justin Theroux, Felicity Jones and Arnie Hammer in director Mimi Leder's "On the Basis of Sex." Photo: Focus Features  

Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg shines in "On the Basis of Sex," Mimi Leder's new biopic that recreates Ginsburg's years at Harvard Law School and the first case she argued in a courtroom. Though Felicity Jones is good as the no-nonsense Ginsburg, the character herself becomes the film's star. Ginsburg has one of the most brilliant legal minds of all time. As one of the first women to attend Harvard Law School, she had to overcome enormous obstacles.

Leder's opening underscores the boy's club atmosphere of 1950s Harvard. Hundreds of young men are seen walking towards the building where they will learn how to become lawyers. In the middle of this sea of testosterone walks one woman, Ginsburg, a determined look on her face. She knows that many of her classmates, and perhaps her professors, will not take her seriously. But she keeps her eye on the prize, a law degree.

Ginsburg has to deal with more than sexism in her Harvard years. She's a young wife and mother, and her husband Martin (Armie Hammer), another Harvard law student, has been diagnosed with cancer. As he undergoes treatments, Ruth attends both of their classes, tutoring him as he lies in his sickbed. It's a challenge, yet Ruth rises to the occasion.

Martin survives, and in 1970, the couple work together on their first case. Ruth, who wants to challenge gender roles, takes on the case of a man denied a tax deduction meant for single working mothers. He's called a tax cheat by the IRS simply because he's a man. Ruth reasons that if she can win his case, heard by the Colorado State Supreme Court, she can break the norms of what are expected not only of men, but also of women. That case was the beginning of an incomparable legal career that took her all the way to the Supreme Court.

Though it has the feel of a TV film, "On the Basis of Sex" is worth paying to see for Jones' portrayal of Ginsburg's iron will. Hammer is somewhat wasted in a role in which he's little more than window-dressing. Others in the supporting cast do fine work: Sam Waterston as the condescending (to women) Dean of Harvard, and the always-magnificent Kathy Bates as feminist attorney Dorothy Kenyon. From the mid-1950s to the early 70s, the film gets the settings, clothes, hairstyles, and attitudes just right. It's fascinating to watch Ginsburg take on the system, setting the stage for changes to come.

The real Ginsburg gives the film her personal stamp of approval. At the end of the film Jones, as Ginsburg, is seen walking up the steps of the US Supreme Court, but it's Justice Ginsburg who reaches the top. It's a nice touch, putting the perfect cap on a film that's an important history lesson. (Opens on Christmas.)

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