Iron Jawed Angels. Sounds like a female sexploitation action flick, right? Well, it's not. It's an incredible HBO film that looks at the final historical battle in the women's suffragette movement.
The fight that began with Susan B. Anthony ended with the lesser known Alice Paul (Hillary Swank) and Lucy Burns (Frances O'Connor). And this movie showed me for the first time the awful truth behind what was done to women before they won the right to vote.
I have to admit that when this film was on HBO, I was amazed by the cast, but just didn't think I'd be able to sit through an historical piece, since it's just not my favorite subject (let's not go into the low average I kept throughout high school). So when this DVD landed in my hands to review, I saw it as a punishment. It wasn't. It was a reward—for what, I don't know.
The second the movie opened—with the familiar notes of a song by Vertical Horizon—I was like, "okay, I'm about to have an experience." Did I ever. The brilliant director and screenwriter took historical fact and made it feel like a modern drama. This was no stuffy period piece with period dialogue. Swank and O'Connor shine as the two strong-willed women determined to win equality for women, even when the head of the suffragette movement (played by Angelica Huston) dismisses them as troublemakers.
What unfolds is a brief period in history, as this group of "iron jawed angels" defies the country to stand for what they believe in, even if it means attacking President Woodrow Wilson (Bob Gunton) during war years. We are exposed to atrocities that women who wanted to be heard were subjected to, from being spit on, beaten on the streets, imprisoned, cast out by their husbands, and worse. It made my stomach turn, and so much of what was happening in this movie reflected how little things have changed today: scapegoat minorities, denial of rights to those deemed lesser citizens, Constitutional manipulation at a time of war, and more. Issues such as birth control and race were touched upon. The director and screenwriter admit in their commentary that the race issue deserves a movie in itself since there was a complicated conflict of interest with black women at the time (one can only imagine), but they felt they had to include it to some extent in this film.
The only underdeveloped part of the film was Hillary Swank's romantic interest—found in the arms of Patrick Dempsey. It seemed a little forced, as if to prove that she was not anti-man, just pro-woman. And here I thought she was a lesbian when the movie opened. Which is something else you won't find. Chances are, the women's suffragette movement was loaded with lesbians, admitted or not, but there are no suggestions of it in this film. But, I guess that would be a movie in itself too, right? Any lesbian directors and screenwriters listening out there?
This definitely wasn't your mother's made-for-TV-movie. It was so powerfully crafted, with carefully orchestrated filming and editing, as well as a killer modern soundtrack that gave it punch. Songs by the likes of Lauryn Hill, Sarah McLachlan, and techno dance artist Mandalay captured the incredible spirit of the film. The visual literally became a choreographed dance to accompany the soundtrack. Absolutely astounding. This film would have found as just as comfortable a home as part of the MTV Choose or Lose election campaign.
HBO films went all out for this one. It's presented in anamorphic widescreen, aspect ratio of 1:85:1. The colors are rich, the blacks are deep, the image is incredibly sharp, and the print is clean as a whistle. Only note is that the flesh tones seemed a bit washed out and white.
Dolby 5.1 surround is offered. The movie itself didn't make excessive use of surround, more often simple left/right separation. But when the soundtrack tunes kicked in, they sounded better in the surround environment than they do on a 2-channel stereo system. The bass response was also excellent.
The variety of language options include English audio track in 5.1 or 2.0 stereo, plus Spanish and French tracks in 2.0. Subtitles options include English, Spanish or French.
There is also a commentary with director Katja von Garnier and screenwriter Sally Robinson. Their passion for this project shines through. It was so clearly a personal triumph for them, and they new the film forwards and backwards, offering incredible insight into their objectives, filming techniques, the actors, and the history they were representing.
Finally, there is a really cheap plug by HBO films. This is simply a collage of clips from HBO movies—like something you'd see on the network between movies. Not even titles. Just quick clips. Useless stuff.
Iron Jawed Angels is a brilliant film that takes an historical moment—the women's right to equality—and presents it like a modern drama with a butt-kicking soundtrack. It's relevance to this country's continued practice of inequality rings clear, reminding us that history just keeps repeating itself. This DVD offers a cinematic visual experience that does the film justice, and includes a worthy commentary by the director and screenwriter.