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Iron Jawed Angels  (2003)


Rating: NR

Distributor: HBO Home Video

Release Date: September 7, 2004
Review posted: September 3, 2004


Reviewed by Dylan Grant




The true story of how defiant and brilliant young activists Alice Paul (Swank) and Lucy Burns (O’Connor) took the women’s suffrage movement by storm, putting their lives at risk to help American women win the right to vote.




Hesitation to picket a wartime president.  Mistreatment of prisoners.  A country deeply divided.  What sounds like modern day was actually America, circa 1914.  Another president, another war, but the issues, at their core, were strikingly similar.  The women’s suffrage movement, and indeed the entire World War I era, was a vibrant time in American history that seems, in the dramatic sense, to be underrepresented.  The cinematic possibilities seem wide ranging, but little has come of it.  Now HBO has given us Iron Jawed Angels, a broad stroke of a film that does well to dramatize the struggle of Alice Paul and Lucy Burns, while hitting on other aspects of a movement that would, by the filmmakers’ own admission, require movies in themselves to go into in detail. 


Alice and Lucy are the focus of the story, two intelligent girls who had been around the world and knew that America was desperately lagging in the area of suffrage.  (As we learn, England, New Zealand, Russia and other countries all gave women the vote before America did.)  They join a women’s movement and begin to organize.  This film would crumble without strong performances from its leads, and Hilary Swank and Frances O’Connor deliver in spades.  The film’s biggest strength comes in how it recreates the period, showing how the suffrage movement was hindered by, among a great many other things, the fact that it was not the day’s only pressing issue.  Mainly, there was the brewing war in Europe, America’s involvement in what would later be called World War I.  Many thought that the women should give up their picketing of Woodrow Wilson when he became a wartime president, and the fact that they refused only brought more trouble.  The film also briefly hits on the racial issues that touched the movement.  Did “Votes For Women” mean all women?  Or just white women? 


There is a one-sidedness and a seen-it-before feeling to Iron Jawed Angels that thickens more and more as the film rolls on.  Perhaps because the film is so broad in its depiction of the movement, the film never moves dramatically beyond the familiar premise of a suffering group that overcomes its oppressors.  The women suffer unjustly, suffer even more unjustly, before finally winning in the end.  The men in the film are never more than two-dimensional, cold, heartless bastards, while the women are the long-suffering victims of male domination.  There is a third dimension missing that might have made all of the characters more interesting.  The script feels overwritten, pandering to its audience and bludgeoning it into seeing its point of view.


It is interesting how, in the end, Woodrow Wilson moves to grant women the right to vote as “a necessary war measure,” which not only gives the film a modern edge, but also shows that the vote was granted not simply because it was the right thing to do, but because of intense political pressure, and justified as an integral part of something bigger.  There is much of Iron Jawed Angels that makes it feel like a modern story, not locked in its period like so many doomed period films.  The film has a familiar feeling, but it aims both barrels at its audience and hits its targets every time.




Iron Jawed Angels is presented in the original 1.85:1 aspect ratio.  The colors are crisp, and the overall transfer is pristine.  The colors look great, and the photography of the picture – which is striking – translates beautifully.




This DVD presents several audio options: English 5.1, English Dolby Surround, Spanish Dolby, and French 2.0.  The presentation is sharp, and there is great dispersal throughout.  The sound editing in this film is quite good, and the audio presentation here really brings that through.




Audio commentary by director Katja Von Garnier and screenwriter Sally Robinson: as insightful commentary, the filmmakers talk about the making of the film, how everything came together, and how the cinematic version relates to the actual people and events.


This is the only piece of bonus material.  There is no trailer, no behind-the-scenes for this well-dressed period piece, nothing beyond the commentary track.




Iron Jawed Angels is a competent film about a period of American history that has never received its share of dramatic representation, and the overall film is good despite being a bit one sided and dramatically familiar.  The audio/video presentation is good, but the special features leave something to be desired.




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