Richard Nisley

Movie Review–On The Basis of Sex
Pop Culture Released - Oct 27, 2019
More than a biographical sketch of Ruth Bader Ginsburg's ground-breaking career as an advocate for gender equality, what this movie is really about is how Ms Ginsburg discovered her life's work and, more importantly, found her voice. The movie cast is special, spear-headed by radiant Felicity Jones as Ruth Bader "Kiki" Ginsburg. Also noteworthy is Armie Hammer as her likable and devoted husband, Martin Ginsberg. The on-screen chemistry between the two is palpable. Also special are Justin Theroux as harried civil rights activist Mel Wulf of the ACLU, and Kathy Bates as jaded civil rights attorney Dorothy Kenyon. Sam Waterston as crusty Harvard Law School Dean, Erwin Griswold, is noteworthy as well. While proud of the Ginsburg's accomplishments at Harvard (where both husband and wife achieved academic honors), as Solicitor General Erwin Griswold is not above doing his best to defeat their groundbreaking case (Moritz v. Commissioner of the Internal Revenue Service) fearing it will upset America's male dominated society.

The movie chronicles the happily-married Ginsburgs from the time Ruth enters Harvard Law School as one of the first women to be admitted, and where Martin, as a second year student, is way-laid with cancer; Ruth not only nurses him to full recovery but attends both their classes, and types up their class notes, (the movie shows Ms Ginsberg to be uncommonly smart and hard working). Thanks to her outstanding grade-point average she winds up on the Harvard Law Review, and, did I mention? they have an infant child, which she somehow finds time to nurture.

The scene then shifts to New York City where Martin, now fully recovered, works for one of the City's prestigious tax law firms. Meanwhile Ruth transfers to Columbia Law School and graduates with honors. Ironically, despite her outstanding academic record, no law firm will hire her. Why? Because she is a woman. When a teaching position opens up at Rutgers Law School across the Hudson River in Newark, New Jersey, she accepts; after being tenured she creates a new class: "Sex Discrimination and the Law."

However, she becomes annoyed with her husband's star-status as one of the nation's leading tax attorneys. To help her get the opportunity to make a name for herself, Martin finds a tax case for her to pursue, one involving a pro se litigant named Charles Moritz (ably played by Chris Mulky). Moritz, who has been taking care of his elderly mother, was denied a $600 dependent care deduction because he was an unmarried man. It was a clear case of reverse gender discrimination. Believing the case offers her the opportunity to end sex discrimination before the law, Ruth meets with Moritz and offers to take his case pro bono. With her husband as co-counsel and the ACLU behind them, Ruth argues the case before the Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals in Denver.

This is where the movie gets interesting. The defense team for the government is headed by Harvard Dean Erwin Griswold, now with the Solicitor General's office in Washington, D.C. Afraid of losing, the defense compiles a list of several hundred court cases involving gender discrimination all of which would be subject to reversal by the Supreme Court, should Moritz win. The result they believe would significantly alter the fabric of the nation, and possibly destroy the American family in the bargain. To keep the case out of court, Griswold offers a deal whereby Moritz would be rewarded one dollar. Ginsburg wants full reimbursement for her client plus the government to admit they were wrong, and to alter the tax code to favor men and women caregivers equally. Their response? See you in court.

On the day of the hearing before three appellate judges, she becomes unnerved by their persistent questioning (that interrupts the flow of her presentation), and at the time of rebuttal defers to her husband. When he hesitates, she rises to take the podium, fueled by the government's defense team, which in their zeal to win have accused her and the ACLU of using Moritz for the own purposes, which they describe as "radical social change." It is at this point that Ginsburg finds her voice, and uses the defense's words against them. It's a movie climax that's worth the price of admission.

The rest of the story, as they say, is history. Now armed with 100-plus cases the defense has provided them, she makes a career of pursuing them in court one-by-one, eventually arguing six before the U.S. Supreme Court, five of which she wins. Her reputation becomes such that she is appointed to the Supreme Court.

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