But where does one start to change the world? A sort of legal-procedural-slash-superhero origin story, Mimi Leder's cheery new Ruth Bader Ginsburg drama On the Basis of Sex makes the case for persistence over the course of a life, for fighting off complacency, for taking inspiration rather than umbrage in the outrage of people younger than you. Leder's film mostly devotes itself to the future Supreme Court justice's first world-shaking sex discrimination case, 1972's Moritz v. Commissioner of Internal Revenue: Ginsburg and her husband, tax lawyer Martin D. Ginsburg, argued against a discriminatory statute before the 10th Circuit Court of Appeals. Leder smartly balances the personal and the political, the intimate and the public, the myth of the liberal folk hero and the facts of the case itself.
The film opens with young Ginsburg (Felicity Jones), recently married, arriving at Harvard Law School as a student in 1956. She is one of just nine women in a class of hundreds, a point Leder persuasively establishes in a kickoff montage: all these swells in black suits, parading up Cambridge's most pompous staircase, and also one tiny woman in a baby-blue skirt set. Eventually, Leder offers us a crisp, involving legal thriller, with tense preps for oral argument and salty appearances from lefty legal stalwarts like Dorothy Kenyon (Kathy Bates) and the ACLU's Mel Wulf (Justin Theroux). It all builds, of course, to a moment of rousing ridiculousness, as the once-and-future RBG fumbles with a microphone while standing before a panel of judges, setting off a squall of feedback, and then stammering too much as she begins her remarks. Will she find her voice? Will she change the world? Reader, just guess.