'On The Basis Of Sex' And 'Vice': 2 Biopics — 1 Bathed In Light, 1 Steeped In Shadow

Dec 25, 2018
Originally published on December 27, 2018 12:12 pm

Two films open this week with titles that make them sound a lot sexier than they are: On the Basis of Sex and Vice.

They're both biopics — Sex about a liberal Supreme Court justice, Vice a conservative vice president. But they differ in ways that go far deeper than politics.

On The Basis Of Sex

Notorious: A young Ruth Bader Ginsburg (Felicity Jones) stands and delivers at Harvard Law School in On the Basis of Sex.
Jonathan Wenk / Focus Features

You know exactly what you're getting from the opening moment, when a very young Ruth Bader Ginsburg (Felicity Jones) strides into Harvard Law School surrounded by a sea of grey, black, and navy business suits.

The year is 1956, and at first, she's the only person you see in heels (that's cinematic shorthand; times were different then). When the law dean hosts a dinner party for the nine Harvard women in a class of hundreds, and asks them to go around the table and explain why they're occupying a place at Harvard that could have gone to a man, you're encouraged to bristle, just as Ruth does.

After Ruth graduates, things aren't much better. New York law firms won't hire her; she ends up teaching law. And then her husband Martin (Armie Hammer) comes to her with a tax case he's working on that he thinks might be up her alley, one that involves sex-based discrimination against a man -- which if ruled unconstitutional, she realizes, could "topple the whole damn system of discrimination."

Director Mimi Leder's approach to the story of a genuinely remarkable woman is genuinely, remarkably ... conventional. There are hurdles jumped, doubts overcome, inspirational music, an earnest performance by Jones, and a climactic courtroom scene that On the Basis of Sex treats almost as a sporting event: Can she get her argument across the finish line?

On the basis of cinematic precedent, that is never very much in question.

Vice

You'd think a film about Vice President Dick Cheney would be equally unsurprising; it's not like we don't know how his story turned out. But Vice is by Adam McKay, the guy who made credit default swaps cool, or at least comprehensible, in The Big Short, and cut his teeth on Saturday Night Live. And he doesn't generally give audiences what they're expecting. Take the moment when a young intensely devoted Dick Cheney (played by Christian Bale, who gained 40 pounds for the role) is interning for a young-ish Congressman Donald Rumsfeld (Steve Carell) and asks his mentor a question what it is, exactly, that they believe ...

... which reduces Rumsfeld to a fit of mocking laughter.

That scene takes place early on, and Bale's Cheney is nothing if not a quick study — a downright Machiavellian one, with a wife, Lynne Cheney (Amy Adams) who's as hungry for power as he is.

At least that's how they're pictured by narrator (Jesse Plemons) who pops in occasionally to muse about, say, the impossibility of knowing exactly what the Cheneys were thinking when they realized George W. Bush was going to offer him the vice presidency:

"We can't just snap into a Shakespearean soliloquy that dramatizes every feeling and motivation," he says. "That's just not the way the world works."

Maybe not, but it is exactly how an Adam McKay movie works — the next thing we know, Dick and Lynne are enacting a scene in faux-Shakespeare, complete with peals of thunder.

Growling, gruff, and grumpy Bale makes the title character a lot like his Batman — basically a psychopath-turned-vigilante. Adams is sharp as his Lady Macbeth and Sam Rockwell makes a great foil as Dubya.

McKay views Cheney as responsible for most of the things that are wrong with the world today — and he pursues that notion with take-no-prisoners zeal. And also with considerable cleverness, from the fishing lures that take on the shape of Twin Towers or oil derricks in the final credits, to the waiter who offers Cheney and other diners a "menu" of governmental horrors:

"Tonight," he says, "we're offering the Enemy Combatant, whereby a person is not a prisoner of war, or a criminal, which means of course that he has absolutely no protection under the law."

Vice is as entertainingly negative about the former vice president as On the Basis of Sex is blandly positive about the future Supreme Court Justice.

So, it's Christmas ... choose your poison.

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ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

Two films opened today with titles that make them sound a lot sexier than they are. One is called "Vice" and the other "On The Basis Of Sex." What they are is biopics about a conservative vice president and a liberal Supreme Court justice. Critic Bob Mondello says the film's differences go way beyond politics.

BOB MONDELLO, BYLINE: You know exactly what you're getting with "On The Basis Of Sex" from the opening moment, when a very young Ruth Bader Ginsburg strides into Harvard Law School surrounded by a sea of gray, black and navy business suits. The year is 1956, and at first, she's the only person you see in heels - cinematic shorthand. Times were different then. And when the law dean hosts a dinner party for the nine Harvard women in a class of hundreds, you're encouraged to bristle, as Ruth does.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "ON THE BASIS OF SEX")

SAM WATERSTON: (As Erwin Griswold) Let us go around the table. And each of you ladies report who you are where, you're from and why you're occupying a place at Harvard that could have gone to a man.

MONDELLO: After she graduates, things aren't much better. New York law firms won't hire Ginsburg, so she ends up teaching law. And then her husband comes to her with a tax case he's working on that he thinks might be up her alley - and it is.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "ON THE BASIS OF SEX")

FELICITY JONES: (As Ruth Bader Ginsburg) This is sex-based discrimination against a man.

ARNIE HAMMER: (As Martin Ginsburg) Poor guy.

JONES: (As Ruth Bader Ginsburg) If a federal court ruled that this law is unconstitutional, then it could become the precedent others refer to and build on. Men and women both - it could topple the whole damn system of discrimination.

MONDELLO: Director Mimi Leder's approach to the story of a genuinely remarkable woman is genuinely remarkably conventional. There are hurdles jumped, doubts overcome, inspirational music, an earnest performance by Felicity Jones and a climactic courtroom scene that "On The Basis Of Sex" treats almost as a sporting event. Can she get her argument across the finish line? On the basis of cinematic precedents, that is never very much in question.

You'd think "Vice" about Vice President Dick Cheney would be equally unsurprising. It's not like we don't know how his story turned out. But "Vice" is by Adam McKay, the guy who made credit default swaps cool in "The Big Short" and cut his teeth on "Saturday Night Live." And he doesn't generally give audiences what they're expecting. Take the moment when a young, intensely devoted Dick Cheney - played by Christian Bale, who gained 40 pounds for the role - is interning for a youngish Congressman Donald Rumsfeld and asks his mentor a question.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "VICE")

CHRISTIAN BALE: (As Dick Cheney) What do we believe?

MONDELLO: Steve Carell's Rumsfeld takes in his protege.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "VICE")

STEVE CARELL: (As Donald Rumsfeld, laughing) What do we believe? Oh, that's very good. What do we believe? (Laughter).

MONDELLO: This is early on, and Bale's Cheney is nothing if not a quick study, Machiavellian, with a wife as hungry for power as he, at least according to the narrator, who pops in occasionally to muse about, say, the impossibility of knowing what the Cheneys were thinking when they realized George W. Bush was going to offer him the vice presidency.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "VICE")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As narrator) You can't just snap into a Shakespearean soliloquy that dramatizes every feeling and motivation. It's just not the way the world works.

MONDELLO: It is, however, how an Adam McKay movie works.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "VICE")

BALE: (As Dick Cheney) A mere treaty is our union.

AMY ADAMS: (As Lynne Cheney) My own blood and will are yours, to pierced be the last soldier's breastplate spilling forth its ruby jelly treasures.

MONDELLO: Growling, gruff and grumpy, Christian Bale makes the title character a lot like his Batman - basically a psychopath-turned-vigilante. Amy Adams is sharp as his Lady Macbeth.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "VICE")

ADAMS: (As Lynne Cheney) Half the room wants to be us. The other half hears us.

MONDELLO: And Sam Rockwell is a great foil as Dubya (ph).

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "VICE")

SAM ROCKWELL: (As George W. Bush) I want you to be my VP. You're the solution to my problem.

BALE: (As Dick Cheney) The vice presidency is mostly a symbolic job.

ROCKWELL: (As George W. Bush) I can see how that wouldn't be enticing to you.

BALE: (As Dick Cheney) However...

MONDELLO: McCay views Cheney as responsible for most of the things that are wrong with the world today, and he pursues that notion with take-no-prisoners zeal, also with considerable cleverness from the fishing lures in the shape of Twin Towers and oil derricks that grace the final credits to the waiter who offers Cheney and other diners a menu of governmental horrors.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "VICE")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: (As character) Tonight, we're offering the enemy combatant, whereby by a person is not a prisoner of war or a criminal, which means, of course, that he has absolutely no protection under the law. We're also offering an extraordinary rendition where suspects are...

MONDELLO: "Vice" is as entertainingly negative about the vice president as "On The Basis Of Sex" is blandly positive about the future Supreme Court justice. So it's Christmas - choose your poison. I'm Bob Mondello. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.