Iron Jawed Angels: A remedy for voter apathy

Ever wake up on Election Day and say to yourself, “I think I’ll just sit this one out”? I have an app — er, a movie for that!

I just finished watching an 8-year-old film that, prior to my purchase, I’d never heard of. Although lacking the hype of say, a Batman movie, this is now unquestionably one of my all-time favorites. It’s called “Iron Jawed Angels.”

I bought it solely on the recommendation of my friend, Nancy, and it depicts both the bleakest and brightest days of the women’s suffrage movement. From it, I learned that the women who demonstrated in front of the White House to promote passage of the 19th Amendment endured the most brutal conditions and treatment imaginable. Also, although I’d known that then-President Woodrow Wilson was a racist, I learned that he was something of a misogynist to boot.

“Iron Jawed Angels” is an HBO made-for-TV movie directed by German filmmaker Katja von Garnier, and it follows the activities of real-life suffragettes Lucy Burns (played by Frances O’Connor) and Alice Paul (played by Hilary Swank, who was also memorable in “Million Dollar Baby”). As an aside, the real Alice Paul drafted the very first equal rights amendment and founded the National Women’s Party.

Although the film is set and costumed true to the period, much of the soundtrack is pure rock ‘n’ roll, providing the grit it needs to underscore both the ugliness and the joy that dominates the plot. The music, together with interesting camera angles, selective use of slow motion and modern cinematography, tells the viewer that this isn’t going to be some proper, early 20th century stroll through the park with paramour in arm and parasol in hand.

Upon breaking with the establishment of the women’s suffrage movement, Paul, Burns and their followers set up dawn-to-dusk White House demonstrations, which eventually get them each arrested, tried and sentenced to a 60-day jail term. This is where the film takes a dark turn and provides its most horrific scenes. The jail conditions are deplorable, and the women are held incommunicado to friends, family and even legal counsel. They’re humiliated, beaten and finally, in protest, go on a hunger strike. The most nightmarish scene is where Paul is force-fed milk and raw eggs delivered by a funnel and tubing.

The film also demonstrates that there are some things in life that just never change. The Washington Post was and remains a mouthpiece for the Democratic Party. Men were and are often real putzes. And there has never been anything on earth more special, albeit sometimes maddening, than a woman.

Why do I find this film so compelling? A hundred years ago, these brave, young women endured unspeakable horrors in order to secure something for themselves that should have been granted them as a matter of course at least 100 years earlier. Compare that to today. People whine that they’re disenfranchised solely on the basis that they’re required to present a photo ID at the voting booth. If that’s not beyond pathetic, I don’t know what is. For both its surefire antidote to voter apathy as well as its educational and entertainment appeal, I give it two enthusiastic thumbs up.

The following preview unfortunately seems to have been made as more of an afterthought. I suppose this is common for made-for-TV movies, but whatever its shortcomings, it nonetheless gives an idea of the film’s visual impact.

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