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Front Page - Friday, January 18, 2019

Occasional miscues impair otherwise-fine Ginsburg biopic

“On the Basis of Sex” opens with a sea of clones marching across the screen. Hundreds of men, their hair trimmed above their necks and ears and parted to one side, their dull gray, brown and charcoal suits hanging loosely from their tall frames, their briefcases held in one hand, and their shiny dress shoes clacking against concrete, all moving with purpose toward an unknown destination.

Within this wave of conformity, a bright blue suit emerges. It’s a woman! At first glance, she appears to be swept up in the current, but as the camera moves closer to her, it’s clear she’s marching with perhaps greater purpose than the men, her long, dark hair bobbing with each step, her hands holding both a briefcase and a purse, and her heels clicking against concrete as she tries to keep up.

What a strange sight this must have been at Harvard Law School in 1956, when Ruth Bader Ginsburg was one of only nine women in a class of about 500 men. Indeed, Ginsburg receives many confused and disapproving looks as she takes her seat in an auditorium to hear the dean give his welcome speech, during which he explains what it means to be a Harvard man.

Soon after, we see Ginsburg and the other female law students sharing a special meal with the dean and his wife. Played with more than a hint of smug superiority by Sam Waterston, the dean asks each lady to stand and explain why she’s at Harvard Law School, taking a spot that could have been occupied by a man.

After watching the dean rudely interrupt another female law student, Ginsburg stands and says she’s there to learn about her husband’s career so she can be a more understanding and supportive wife.

It’s a funny line, but it doesn’t ring true. Maybe Ginsburg said that, maybe she didn’t, but these opening scenes of “On the Basis of Sex,” a biographical legal drama based on the life and early cases of Supreme Court Justice Ginsburg, sum up everything that’s right and wrong with the film.

One thing that’s right: Felicity Jones as Ginsburg. Jones disappears completely into the role of the young Ginsburg and is so utterly convincing, I couldn’t recall if I’d seen her in another film. Tasked with portraying the intelligence, determination, and fire contained with Ginsburg, Jones rose brilliantly to the occasion.

Some film reviews mention how an actor in a particular role communicates every thought and emotion through his or her eyes, but not this one. That’s because Jones uses every limb, faculty and ounce of energy at her disposal to portray Ginsburg’s fury, but never overplays a moment or chews any scenery.

Jones also carries the climactic scene in the film, an oral argument at the Court of Appeals, beautifully, infusing what could have been a dull sequence with tension and suspense as Ginsburg struggles to think on her feet.

The script by Daniel Stiepleman is another one of the film’s strong points, not just for its generally well-written dialogue or the way it humanizes a towering historical figure, but also for how it’s not afraid to portray Ginsburg’s faults.

When Ginsburg presents her argument before the Court of Appeals, for example, she’s preceded at the podium by her husband, Martin, because a disastrous moot court trial run made it clear Ginsburg is all fury and no finesse.

The scene is a clever encapsulation of the struggle of women to establish footing in what had been a man’s world and gives Ginsburg an opportunity to overcome her imperfections and make history.

Also, I love the way Stiepleman introduces the tax case that will take Ginsburg to the Court of Appeals. Instead of inducing yawns by explaining its importance, he has Martin tell a funny story about a tax case at a party and insist that, “Tax law is hilarious!” I always enjoy when a film pokes a little fun at itself.

While Stiepleman’s screenplay is mostly solid, it’s also flawed. Like “Marshall,” the 2017 biographical film about African-American Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall, it uses a chapter from Ginsburg’s early years to paint a portrait of the complete person.

This is an acceptable strategy for a film, which cannot contain the details of a printed biography, but “On the Basis of Sex” marches through Ginsburg’s origin story with a connect-the-dots simplicity that – like Ginsburg’s quip at dinner with the dean – doesn’t always feel genuine.

Also, Stiepleman stumbles with the relationship between Ginsburg and her teenage daughter, Jane. Some early tension between them dissolves on its own, and Jane proceeds to spur her mother on at several key moments by saying something so profound and wise, it could have only been written by a Hollywood screenwriter.

Not only does this shatter the film’s tenuous believability, it takes a little of its triumph away from Ginsburg and places it in the hands of a secondary character.

Director Mimi Leder should have downplayed these scenes, but she gave them the same weight as every other moment, and they stick out terribly, like someone had interjected scenes from a sappy Hallmark movie into an otherwise thoughtful film.

Fortunately, Leder (the director of my favorite disaster film, “Deep Impact”) is at the top of her game the rest of the time. She’s especially good at directing actors, as is evident in a scene in which Martin knows he’s about to bear the full force of Ginsburg’s outrage, and looks terrified as he tries to figure out the right thing to say.

Leder also directs with a skilled cinematic eye and infused “On the Basis of Sex” with an infectious vitality. Despite the film’s shortcomings, I was easily caught up in its energy, and left the theater feeling uplifted (thanks in no small part to a beautifully conceived and executed final shot).

Ginsburg could serve as the subject of a great biographical film. While “On the Basis of Sex” is not a great film, it does offer an entertaining and insightful look at her early years and how they foretold who she would become. Plus, it’s to the film’s credit that I left wanting to know more.

Perhaps I’ll grab one of those printed biographies – maybe “My Own Words,” or “Notorious RBG.”