Meaning: The right or privilege of voting; franchise
The 19th Amendment of the Constitution of the United States of America guarantees all American women the right to vote. A section of it reads, "The right of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of sex."
In an election year and with the Presidential election only two months away, HBO's made-for-television movie, "Iron Jawed Angels" presents us with a great opportunity to look back at the long and arduous struggle for women's equality in terms of voting rights. This struggle is also known as the women's suffrage movement and was initially led by Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton. An example of how hard the fight was, the Amendment was first introduced in Congress way back in 1878 and the elected members of both Houses refused to vote on it year after year for almost forty years. It was only after President Woodrow Wilson announced his support for women's suffrage in 1918 that the House of Representatives passed the Susan B. Anthony Amendment. Finally ratified by the state of Tennessee (an amendment must be passed by at least three-fourths of all the states in the union) on August 18th, 1920, this Constitutional Amendment marked a major step forward in the long journey taken by brave groups of women as they fought a government bureaucracy machine that was rife with prejudice and sexism. And it took a new generation of women's activists to energize the movement and to agitate against the government.
"Iron Jawed Angels" centers on the struggles of famous women's suffragists like Alice Paul (Hillary Swank), Lucy Burns (Frances O'Connor) and a host of other women who were organized under NAWSA (National American Women's Suffrage Association). Paul and Burns represent a new generation of women's suffragist, ones who are well educated and certainly more assertive and impatient with their demands for equal voting rights. The pair met in Britain and was deeply influenced by the militant-style work of groups in the suffrage movement there. Like many of the younger members of NAWSA, Paul is impatient with the progress that the association is making and together with Burns, got the leadership of NAWSA to appoint them as co-chairs the organization's Congressional Committee in Washington, DC. They begin by collecting signatures to lobby Congress and also by organizing high profile events like a parade that coincides with newly elected President Woodrow Wilson's inauguration, in order to gain as much publicity as possible for the suffrage movement. One of the most enduring images of this spectacle is the majestic sight of lawyer, Inez Milholland--played by Julia Ormond--garbed in flowing white robe, astride a white horse leading the parade. Another interesting story told here is the participation of Emily Leighton (Molly Parker) in the suffrage movement. Leighton is the wife of an elected Democratic Senator and the polarizing effects of her role as an obedient political wife and her role as a woman fighting for her rights is one of the highlights in the film. Unfortunately, the Leighton character is a fictional one.
However, Paul's over the top tactics does not sit well with NAWSA's leadership, which is led by the stoic Carrie Chapman Catt (Angelica Huston). Feeling that NAWSA is not supporting their efforts anymore, Paul breaks away to form the National Women's Party (NWP) and steps up the pace by campaigning against Democrats in the national elections, who were in control of the White House and Congress at that time. Paul took the NWP on a radical path that contrasted itself totally from NAWSA that counseled patience and political discussions. And it is the NWP's fateful decision to picket the White House that brought them the most attention and also notoriety. Picketing day and night and under any weather conditions, the many women who lined up in front of the White House refuse to bow down to taunts and abuses, both verbal and physical, from regular citizens and even the police. However, their perseverance does pay off in the end but not after much hardship and suffering.
Although it is a period movie, "Iron Jawed Angels" is anything but. The early 1900's costumes and sets are all there but the editing style and the contemporary music beat gives the film a modern visual flair and a kind of edginess that is both refreshing and surprising. I certainly did not expect to see some music video-style quick cuts and slow motions and hear contemporary electronic and jazzy beats coming from a movie based in the mid to late 1910's. A perfect movie for the "Rock the Vote" movement? You betcha! It is certainly invigorating to be able to experience a new and innovative approach to a period movie's presentation that would certainly have wallowed in mediocrity if it had stuck to business as usual. Kudos goes out to HBO for again, not being afraid of trying a new approach and for being at the forefront of change in television.
The trouble with films based on actual historical events is that the outcome is more or less known, as they are mostly well documented. Although it removes all manner of a surprise ending, the finer details are usually still left up to an individual's own interpretation. Sometimes, a screenwriter might add certain side stories that may not be part of the historical interpretation of events to try and give a movie's characters a human side that may not have been apparent in history books. An example here is the addition of Patrick Dempsey's character as Washington Post cartoonist Ben Weissman in the movie, who serves his underwhelming purpose as a romantic distraction for Alice Paul that unfortunately leads nowhere. It tries to show Paul as a deeply committed suffragist that would sacrifice anything for the good of her cause but in the end, it is nothing more than an annoying diversion from the original purpose of the movie.
While "Iron Jawed Angels" tries to educate us on the history of women's suffrage in America, the film is only able to capture a small snapshot in the suffrage movement's timeline, albeit an important one. One major failing of many historical movies like this one is the fact that due to severe time constraints, hard choices have to be made and important events may eventually be left out. Sometimes, the audience is left with having to know some of the historical background before watching the movie, which is the case here. In "Iron Jawed Angels", there is an unfortunate omission that I feel should have been given more airtime. I was surprised to find that the movie did not explain how a Constitutional Amendment works in America or how important it is. This is very surprising since the Amendment is the heart and soul of the struggle for suffrage itself. I was left with the impression that either the screenwriter or the director or both, feel that the process is far too complicated for public consumption. Again, the feeling that the audience is being shortchanged of something so important just so the movie could cater to a lower common denominator is hard to ignore.
Academy Award winners Hillary Swank and Angelica Huston head a mostly-female ensemble cast that pushes this made-for-TV movie to new levels. Swank is superbly cast as the feisty Alice Paul and is capably supported by Huston, Julia Ormond, Frances O'Connor and Molly Parker. Great performances by these actresses lift the film to a higher standard and infuse it with a lively and aggressive spirit that matches perfectly with the theme and message of the film.
Presented in anamorphic widescreen measuring 1.85:1, "Iron Jawed Angels" is typical of many HBO movies in terms of image quality. Clear and without any dirt present, the video transfer is of high quality and features natural skin tones and both subtle and vivid colors. Subtitle options include English, Spanish and French.
With its English language Dolby Digital 5.1 audio track, "Iron Jawed Angels" comes to life, pushing a strangely hypnotic pulsating musical beat. While music forms the basic layer of background audio, the clear and distinct dialogue is front and center (in a manner of speaking), receiving the most attention. As with most dramatic films, the surround channels are seldom used for effects but more for environmental sounds. Other audio options include Dolby Surround 2.0 in English, French and Spanish.
Only one extra feature is included on this DVD and it is an audio commentary by director Katja von Garnier and screenwriter Sally Robinson. Since von Garnier and Robinson are very familiar with the film, they both offer interesting insights into some of the aspects behind the making of the film.
Also available is a short montage of clips from other HBO films, which is something that I don't really consider as a legitimate special feature.
"Iron Jawed Angels" is released on DVD in a keep case, which also includes a glossy insert that lists the chapters.
"Iron Jawed Angels" is a historical film that could have been more effective had it covered a lot more factual ground than flirting with a fluffy side story like a romance angle that has no bearing or consequence to the fight for suffrage. Other than that, the film still works pretty well with the help of a great cast that gives an all-out performance, worthy of its subject matter. As it stands today, the many sacrifices of women's suffragists may not be well known or even widely recognized. Hopefully, this film will change that perception. As the country prepares to vote in November, it is therefore appropriate that this film reminds us of how hard it was to win the right to vote, lest you are thinking of squandering it.