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On the Basis of Sex

Universal // PG-13 // April 9, 2019
List Price: $34.98 [Buy now and save at Amazon]

Review by Olie Coen | posted April 10, 2019 | E-mail the Author

Director: Mimi Leder
Starring: Felicity Jones, Armie Hammer, Justin Theroux
Year: 2018

There are a large number of us who are constantly worried about the health of Ruth Bader Ginsburg, as she sits in a powerful seat among a turbulent government that can't take another hit just now. We monitor her safety, we worry about her longevity, and we pray for the future; what we wouldn't give for a handful more RBGs. No wonder Hollywood has currently turned its collective attention to this powerful woman, with a documentary and then a drama sharing this lady's life story with curious audiences and invested fans. I was worried coming in that On the Basis of Sex would be too heavy-handed, too over-dramatic, to depict this woman sufficiently and succinctly, to do justice to this Justice. But the film worked in all the right places, delivering something smooth and consumable and safeguarded perhaps, but none the worse for care.

The Movie

One of the select few women accepted into the prestigious Harvard Law School in the 50s, Ruth Ginsburg fought every day to be seen, heard, and taken seriously. A wife and mother as well, she juggled text books and classes and home life with a dexterity driven by her desire to become a lawyer, to make a difference in a world that desperately needed changing. She even attended her husband's classes as well when he was recovering from cancer, showing a passion for learning and a refusal to give up that would become her trademark and her badge of honor. Eventually, Ruth would graduate from Columbia and pursue law, only to be told that women didn't need such jobs, that a mother couldn't find the time to be a lawyer as well, and that her sex would always count against her no matter where she went.

Years later, in the 70s, now with two children and working as a professor at Rutgers, Ruth returned to the idea of fighting for the rights of others, especially women, when a fascinating case fell into her husband's lap, and promised to lead the way to equality down a very unusual path. The case was a man suing the IRS to receive a caregiver tax credit for staying with his ailing mother. At issue was the law's language, which stated that only women could receive the credit, because it was assumed that only women were capable of caring for a relative. This case opened the door to women's right because it demanded that the courts say that gender inequality is illegal for either gender, and Ruth jumped at the chance to take this fight as high as it could possibly go. The rest is history, as is the entire life of this woman, a soldier in the battle against oppression who will go down in history as one who led the charge.

The story of RBG should inspire us all. Here is a woman, smarter than basically anyone, who had to work harder than almost everyone, who was told no at every corner, but who never gave up, and of course went on to become one of the most famous women in American history. Not only that, but she spearheaded the legal battles that would change the unjust laws of our nation, that would allow meaningful change to take place, and for that we all owe her a debt, male or female. Now we cheer for her to keep her place on a panel of judges who seem to be leaning further and further toward power, farther and farther away from common decency, as the amoral politicians of the nationalist movement try to subvert what she and so many others have attempted to build; a country in which all are equal.

Returning to the film, I was pleasantly surprised by its quality and its ability to stay away from the cheese. There were times that felt produced, sure, but the movie's heart was obviously in the right place from the beginning, it wins audiences over with ease, and so we forgive tiny flaws, because the greater work is what matters and what we end up soaking in. I do wish they had found a New Yorker, a Jew, someone more authentic, to play RBG; I like Felicity Jones, she was strong in both The Theory of Everything and Rogue One, but she's a Brit, and her hidden accent pops up at the most inopportune moments. Kathy Bates as also an odd choice for a small part; she's a strange actress who no longer really fits. Hammer was brilliant though, and Theroux was strong, the rest of the side characters not adding much to the mosaic, so the casting was a bit of a mixed bag. But the story shone through and dimmed any production flaws into mere background, allowing the reason audiences were watching in the first place to shine very brightly.

The Blu-ray

Video: With an aspect ratio of 1.85:1 (1o80p HD Widescreen) and shot using Arri Alexa Mini and Arri Alexa SXT cameras with Panavision Primo lenses, the video quality of the film is strong enough for a biography, with a touch of nice cinematography usually overshadowed by the sets/costumes/stylings of the time period. The disc watches smoothly, with an eye toward color and wardrobe, not exactly toward stunning visuals.

Audio: The Blu-ray was done in English DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1, with an option of either Spanish or French, both in 5.1 DTS Digital Surround. Also, the audio is available in Descriptive Video Service 2.0. Subtitle choices include English SDH, Spanish, and French. There is also an option to turn menu button sounds on or off. The sound quality of the film is solid, with a nice backing track and a fine balance between dialogue and music.

Extras: There are three special features on the Blu-ray: A Supreme Team: Making On the Basis of Sex (a 6-minute behind-the-scenes segment), Legacy of Justice (a 3-minute character study), and Martin and Ruth: A Loving Partnership (a 3-minute featurette).

Final Thoughts

Highly Recommended. I was pleasantly surprised by the tenacity of this true story, both in its telling of history and its attention to detail. The filmmaking team also held back from taking the plot somewhere melodramatic; I thought the drama of the moment was, more often than not, skillfully handled. There were a few weak points; Kathy Bates, Jack Reynor, and I would have liked a different RBG, though Jones was fine. But the film's strengths proved more important and more compelling, as the tale was told with clarity and with an eye towards current, relevant events. The video is solid, the audio the same, and there are a few extras on the disc, so the technical features stand up on their own, and they support an important story about a extraordinary life that we all need to hear, learn from, and remember.

Olie Coen
Archer Avenue

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Highly Recommended

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