For Americans, the right to vote is so taken for granted that it's hard to believe it was unavailable to the country's women until 1920, and not until after quite a fight. Chronicling this overlooked but major chapter in the history of U.S. civil rights, Iron Jawed Angels is an accomplished biopic that covers a lot of ground without sacrificing the personal details of its characters. The film is refreshing in the way it relegates male characters to the background and puts its full focus on an array of heroic women. Hilary Swank gives an assured and inspiring performance as Alice Paul, the leader of the National Woman's Party, a radical organization that sought nothing less than full voting rights for women. The fine cast is rounded out by Frances O'Connor's understated Lucy Burns, Molly Parker as a senator's wife who defies her husband to become active in the movement, the ever-luminous Julia Ormond, and Anjelica Huston in a fun, scene-stealing role. Patrick Dempsey serves as what might have been a token "love interest" in a lesser film, but here he symbolizes the choice Alice must make between the cause and her personal life. The film's use of contemporary songs and cinematography is a potentially bold stylistic choice that doesn't always work. The intent is clearly to make past events more relevant to a modern audience, and while this strategy succeeds to a certain extent, it also serves to occasionally distance the viewer from the story. Nonetheless, the film excels at depicting the real sacrifices of the women involved, especially in the harrowing prison scenes, as well as in showing the development of nonviolent protest techniques that were later used successfully in other political movements. Iron Jawed Angels vibrantly brings to life a neglected period of America's civil rights struggle without making it seem like a history lesson.
by Skyler Miller review