Movie review: On the Basis of Sex (2018)

On the Basis of Sex celebrates the early career of a most beloved Supreme Court Justice, the Notorious R.B.G. The movie also depicts some of the real-life discrimination that women faced in the twentieth century, from getting an education to being unhireable even after graduating from elite colleges with top marks. Women in essence were treated as second-class citizens and wards of their husbands.

I wondered at the grit Ginsburg managed to exude after the continuous discriminations or micro-discriminations. How does one spring back again and again after unrelenting encounters with people that do not see your value or your humanity? (Something that could be asked about any group not part of the dominate power structure in a society.)

And I wondered at her thoughts about this movie. How much did it diverge from her life? How much did it leave out? How much had she forgotten about or was pushed out of her lived experience until the movie reminded her?

The movie is definitely a feel-good movie. Her marriage with her late husband is legendary. He was a devoted father who helped raise the children and was a staunch supporter and encourager of Ruth in all that she did. Even if this view of him is even marginally accurate, he was definitely not a man of his times.

The movie shows Ginsburg moving in a sea of white men. She attended college and law school in the 1950s, when the country had moved to the right. After the war, women were pushed out of jobs for returning GIs or fled back to the safety of domestic bliss (depending on the narrative you subscribe to).

In one scene, Ginsburg attends a dinner party hosted by the dean for the women entering law school that year. He requests them to answer the question why they deserved to be given a spot in the Harvard Law School that should have been given to a (white) man. Meant to intimidate, belittle, and throw the women off their game.

Ginsburg’s unrelenting determination is amazing. When her husband, a year ahead of her in law school, is unable to attend classes because of illness, she shows up—to the surprise of professors and probably students—to attend his classes for him. What a heavy burden on top of her own first-year classes and family duties (but also a fascinating opportunity for her to get a jump on second-year law classes).

She is, unexpectedly, denied employment after graduation. Her goal was to be a practicing lawyer at a firm. No one would entertain the thought of hiring her. Instead, she ends up as a professor, which the movie portrays as not her choice.

The movie then fast forwards to the 1970s and her classes on sex discrimination and equal rights in the law. The student body is much different. As if the social revolution suddenly happened. Even her daughter has joined in but Ginsburg is a bit taken aback by her daughter’s strength and audacity.

Her husband Martin, a tax lawyer, brings a tax case to her attention. It had the unusual possibility of becoming a precedent for equal rights under the law—if only they could convince the man being denied his tax deduction and the ACLU to take the case to court. Ginsburg started her successful, lifelong strategy to legally build equal rights under the law with this case.

Ginsburg is not, the movie portrays, all strength and self-confidence. She wavers and has doubts. She fails at a mock trial for upcoming arguments at an appeals court. She stumbles in her initial arguments at the court but rebounds during the rebuttal.

The people who give her strength and believe in her are her husband and daughter. Without them, especially her progressive husband, maybe Ruth Bader Ginsburg would not have been the woman and justice she is. And maybe equal rights under the law would not be where it is today. At least that is what the movie suggests.

Movie review: The Final Year (2017)

I was excited to see this documentary, thinking that a movie that harkened back to a better time might be uplifting.

I was wrong.

I found The Final Year profoundly dispiriting. It was reliving the dashed hopes and expectations of the lsat presidential election. When asked about the upcoming election while on foreign diplomatic trips, senior Obama administration officials assured foreigners that Hillary would be president. Trump would never win.

The overconfidence that people had in the unexpected that became reality was painful to watch. Even more painful was an election results viewing party at the home of Samantha Power. Her home was filled with female notables like Madeleine Albright and Gloria Steinem. They watched in deflated horror as the results came in.

Ben Rhodes sputtered, unable to get any word out in his stunned disbelief when interviewed for the documentary. The unthinkable had happened. What was to happen to all of the projects that they had worked so hard on? Would they all be undone?

From the vantage point of several years later, we knew the answer to that. Sadly, yes.

The Final Year follows Obama and some high-level officials (Susan Rice, Samantha Power, Ben Rhodes, and John Kerry). It seems almost unthinkable that at one time the US government was run by intelligent, capable, hard-working officials with only the best interests of the US at heart.

But there they were, working together and with other foreign officials to try to solve problems such as climate change and Iran’s status as a nuclear power. What they devoted so much of their lives and energy toward is in tatters. How utterly dispiriting.

I wonder what the producers of the documentary thought. Did they start on this path of documenting the last year of the Obama presidency thinking that the administration would be passing the baton to a more traditional presidency? Did they start the project with any thought that things would turn out so differently, that they would be documenting the Obama presidency right before its accomplishments were all unraveled?



“If we are to have another contest in the near future of our national existence, I predict that the dividing line will not be Mason and Dixon’s but between patriotism and intelligence on the one side, and superstition, ambition and ignorance on the other.” ~ Ulysses S. Grant

Movie review: Best of Enemies (2015)

Best of Enemies recounts the 1968 showdown between William F. Buckley and Gore Vidal. The movie shows snippets of the famous debates between these two intellectuals, placing the debates in the context of the times and the lives of these two ideological giants.

In the years following their deaths, both figures have retreated into the background, lost to the current political and social climate that if they did not create, they certainly presaged. Buckley was the infamous conservative writer of The National Review who helped spawn the modern-day Republican party (well, pre-Trump at least) and libertarian movement. Gore Vidal, a Democratic, but perhaps not really a leftist, presumably represented the liberal left.

The two men loathed each other.

As I watched these two verbally spar with each other in front of audiences composed of middle-class Americans, I marveled at how it was that erudite intellectuals commanded the attention of Americans.

ABC hatched the debates as a means to garner ratings from their other two network rivals. ABC was a distant third to NBC and CBS. The latter two covered the two presidential conventions from start to finish. ABC did not have the resources to do that. They would be left out in the cold. Unless there was a way to get viewers to tune into their station…from this underdog scrappiness was born the idea of Buckley and Vidal debating each other on the nights of the conventions.

Americans apparently ate this up. And I was stunned. America is not known for its love of people who speak well, are well educated, and erudite—America has always had a strong anti-intellectual bent. And yet, here were two such people being watched by huge swatches of the country.

Their debates were a new format for television and sadly created the flood of debate shows where multiple attendees talk or in some cases yell over each other. In fairness, the numerous point-counterpoint shows that filled the airways since 1968 have not been about debate.

The two men were writers that verbally sparred as representatives of the two opposing political parties and ideologies. The documentary portrays Buckley as winging his debates, Vidal as carefully preparing for them. In the ninth debate, a torrent of insults spewed forth from Buckley to Vidal. Vidal remained calm and collected. Buckley seemingly let his mask slip to reveal his true beliefs. This was something, the documentary tells us, that haunted Buckley for the rest of his life.

Both men ran for public office. And both lost. Publicity seemed to be of paramount concern for both. In time, they have faded from view. Intriguing to think of the profound impact they had on political, social, and ideological discourse that led to where we are today. Not all good, I would argue. If they were alive to see it, what would their reactions be to what they wrought?