The history geek in me beamed with nerdy delight when I learned HBO was making a movie about Alice Paul, feminist hero and resident bad-ass of the American suffragette movement. It’s a gutsy gamble for HBO to tackle the little-known story of Paul, whose efforts brought about the 1920 constitutional amendment giving women the right to vote. Americans are notorious for their apathy toward history. Few of us read scholarly tomes, and not many more tune into the staid documentaries that are the programmatic bread and butter of PBS.
So I had high hopes for the ever-artful HBO to make this spoonful of medicine go down like a spoonful of, well, something else. But for all its well-meaning intentions, Iron Jawed Angels is difficult to swallow.
In a painfully transparent, and ultimately unsuccessful attempt to make the subject compelling, director Katja von Garnier shoots and cuts the film as if it were a music video. The soundtrack is littered with rock music, R&B ballads and grrl rockers, which, if this were a teen love flick, would be fine. But for a period film about voting rights, it just seems weird.
The editing is even more confounding. Garnier spends entirely too much time with pretentious shots of empty swing sets and vast expanses of sky. In one inexplicable scene, she lingers sensuously over the bare arms, calves and shoulders of the women activists dressing for — are you ready for this? — a lobbying event. Is that sexy or just plain odd?
The most fascinating aspect of Iron Jawed Angels — the true story of Paul (Hilary Swank) and her cohorts — is short-changed by the director for fear of scaring away history-adverse audiences. Instead, the director incorporates modern storytelling techniques to keep us riveted. They, in turn, muddle the project and produce the opposite effect.
I was aghast, for example, when the film introduced a love interest for Paul. Such a spineless move suggests that Paul’s intellectual and humanitarian pursuits were too scanty to fill 120 minutes of airtime. Even more grotesque is the gratuitous scene in which Paul masturbates in the bathtub, thinking back on her tender date with the new beau. Taken together, these narrative devices are inappropriate and insulting.
Other characters in the film are equally mistreated. The venerable Carrie Chapman Catt, played by Oscar-winner Angelica Huston, is portrayed as a preening political hack. Anna Howard Shaw, the formidable spiritual godmother of the women’s movement, is depicted as nothing more than a contemptible Victorian.
In truth, Paul was a remarkable young woman, one of the most interesting this country has ever produced. After cutting her teeth in England, where she helped women gain the right to vote, she moved to America. Here, she forced official Washington to take women’s suffrage seriously and essentially handed President Woodrow Wilson his hat when he dawdled on the wrong side of the issue.
She later led a hunger strike in prison after a dubious arrest for “obstruction of traffic” for picketing the White House. Prison officials pried open her mouth with a metal contraption, forced a feeding tube into her stomach and poured food down a funnel into her belly. She vomited constantly through the process, yet still refused to eat. Why? Because she wanted a voice in her government.
There’s rich territory to be mined here, but unfortunately Iron Jawed Angels takes the uninspired road. It tries too hard to please viewers who might not have any interest in Paul’s life at all. For those that do, there’s always the library.