By Rob Blackwelder
A stunning true story unfortunately tarted up for modern audiences, "Iron Jawed Angels" is a disappointing but still powerful HBO movie about the strife and downright horrors faced by the bravest of American suffragettes in their battle for women's voting rights in the 1910s.
Infused with modern informalities and fictional romances, forestalled by a wildly incongruous soundtrack of post-feminist empowerment pop (Lauryn Hill, Sarah McLachlan, etc.), and cast with B-list Hollywood beauties (Hilary Swank, Frances O'Connor, etc.) who are sometimes hard to take seriously, the film is mostly a gross oversimplification depicting a gaggle of forward-thinking gal pals taking on sexist politicians and fuddy-duddy Susan B. Anthony types who don't like their radical methods of generating publicity (like picketing the White House during World War I).
However, director Katja Von Garnier takes a step back from her amped-up, sometimes stylish, sometimes tacky filmmaking as the women face extreme (and factual) consequences for their actions -- including political imprisonment and torture. This is when "Angels" hits an emotionally potent stride that resonates beyond the picture's shortcomings.
Unfortunately, the script is full of transparent contrivances (the meek wife of a fictional anti-suffrage senator learns to assert herself) and dubious choices (who green-lit the bathtub masturbation scene?). It provides little historical or political detail (some of these women were socialists and anti-war activists too), and barely (just barely) pays lip service to unflattering facts like the exclusion of black women from the movement.
Swank is more pretty than pugnacious as Alice Paul, the rabble-rousing founder of the Women's National Party, who gets further short-changed in the film's coda, which merely says she fought for women's rights her whole life without offering any details -- even relevant ones, like the fact that it took three tries to get the 19th Amendment through Congress. Still, despite its many, many flaws, "Iron Jawed Angels" gives an ardent cinematic voice to a shamefully neglected story of progressive American courage.
**1/2 out of ****
(124m | NR)
SOUND & PICTURE
Don't bother with the DVD's dull, self-congratulatory commentary track.
1.85:1 ratio (16x9 enhanced)
DUBS: Spanish, French
SUBS: English, Spanish, French
DVD RATING: **