Monday, December 24, 2018

RBG, champion of gender equality

On the Basis of Sex can't match RBG, a widely seen documentary about Ruth Bader Ginsburg, perhaps because it opts to follow standard bio-pic moves.
If you want some insight into Ruth Bader Ginsburg, you'd do better to watch the recent documentary RBG than to immerse yourself in the dramatized account of Ginsburg's pre-Supreme Court life provided by On the Basis of Sex, a movie that makes no bones about lauding Ginsburg for being a groundbreaker against gender discrimination.

I'm not saying that Ginsburg doesn't deserve such accolades; I am saying that I wish the movie had delivered them in less routine ways.

Still, the value of On the Basis of Sex lies in its overall thrust; the movie reminds us that it wasn't all that long ago that even the most accomplished women had difficulty advancing within the legal establishment -- not to mention the society at large.

And, yes, I know that despite progress, gender equality remains an on-going battle.

Can we buy Felicity Jones as Ginsburg? I guess, but the documentary RBG proved that Ginsburg made a better Ginsburg than Jones, and as directed by Mimi Leder, the movie quickly becomes a catalog of the insulting ways professional women were treated during the late 50s and early '60s.

Working from a script by Daniel Stiepleman, Leder begins the story when Ginsburg enters Harvard Law School, an institution that in 1956 still harbored gender bias: The dean of the law school (Sam Waterston) believes a coveted place at prestigious Harvard Law could be better utilized by a bread-winning man.

At Harvard, Ginsburg received unwavering support from her husband, Martin Ginsburg (Armie Hammer), a genial man who also was enrolled in Harvard Law and who never underestimated his wife's brilliance.

Ginsburg quickly emerges as a super-woman who can take care of a newborn, tend to her ailing husband when he's diagnosed with testicular cancer and excel as a student -- not only in her classes but when filling in for the recovering Martin.

Ginsburg ultimately transferred to Columbia University's law school because Martin landed a job in New York. After graduation, she found that most of the major Manhattan law firms had no interest in hiring a woman.

As a result, Ginsburg began teaching at the law school of Rutgers University in Newark. She and Martin eventually came across a case that opened a door to tackling gender discrimination. Ironically, it involved a male.

The movie spends a good deal of time on litigation involving Charles E. Moritz (Chris Mulkey), a Colorado man who had been denied a tax deduction for taking care of his ill mother on the grounds that caregiving roles were restricted to women.

Martin became involved because he was a highly regarded tax attorney with tons of court-room experience. But as the proceedings unfolded, Ruth Ginsburg found her legal voice. She took charge of gender elements in Moritz v. Commissioner of Internal Revenue.

You'll learn a lot about this 1972 challenge of a tax-court ruling: how it was chosen, the various legal arguments it generated and why it connects to broader gender discrimination cases.

Leder also devotes time to Ginsburg's relationship with her daughter Jane (Cailee Spaeny), a young woman whose views about institutional gender bias were more advanced than her mother's. Initially, Jane was skeptical about her mother's insistence that an unfair system could be changed from the inside.

Justin Theroux signs on as an ACLU lawyer who's eventually cajoled into allowing the organization to join forces with the Ginsburgs.

On the Basis of Sex never transcends by-the-book filmmaking. It's an okay big-screen bio that exemplifies what happens when a movie has an important story to tell but could have told it in a more compelling fashion.

A postscript: There are movies and then there's real life. Every follower of news knows that Justice Ginsberg recently was operated on for lung cancer. If RBG and On the Basis of Sex provide even a glimpse of Ginsburg's fortitude, it's difficult to imagine that she won't be around if someone decides to make a movie about the second half of her career.

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