Rock the vote, in a women's suffrage style


The year is 1912, and two suffragettes are sitting in a Philadelphia coffee shop having a friendly argument about political strategy.

One cites progress made in the national campaign. The other says, "What? Sixty-four years of begging, and women can now vote in nine states? How many years is that per state? ... You do the math."

"Look," her friend says, warning her that such statements could cost them a promotion to the national office, "you want to be two girls on a corner soap box? Or, do you want to go to Washington and play with the big lads?"

And all the while, there is rock music pounding away on the soundtrack.

This is an early scene from Iron Jawed Angels, premiering tomorrow night at 9:30 on HBO. It features a fine cast - Hilary Swank, Frances O'Connor, Julia Ormand and Anjelica Huston - in a moving story about a younger, more radical generation of activists giving the suffrage movement a needed boost just before World War I and playing a key role in winning women the right to vote in 1920.

But, boy oh boy, the decision by executive producer Paula Weinstein and director Katja von Garnier to use modern-day language (such as "you do the math") and a contemporary sensibility in telling this story from the early 20th century is a risky one sure to drive some viewers away even as it might bring new ones to this history. It also raises huge questions about television, history and whether or not storytellers need to make our shared past look like an MTV music video to get young adults interested in it.

The film's greatest strength is Swank's intense and winning performance as Alice Paul, a young suffragette raised in a Quaker household, who comes to Washington with her best friend, Lucy Burns (O'Connor), and jolts the movement into a more confrontational stance via rallies, parades, a newspaper, picketing, jail time and a hunger strike that leads to solitary confinement and forced feeding. Swank can do more with a sideways glance and a half smile than most actors can with a page of great dialogue.

Swank's performance offers an emotional ride powerful enough to almost make up for any bad choices the filmmakers made in voice and tone. The scenes of her being strapped in a chair and force fed are absolutely harrowing and articulate at a visceral level the profound truth of what kind of radicalism and risk it can take to change American life for the better. Von Garnier, the director, certainly deserves credit for staging and filming these scenes the way she does, but it is Swank's performance that makes you feel as if you are in that chair with metal jaws and rubber tubes being savagely rammed into your mouth and down your throat.

But as good as such scenes are, the film is fatally flawed in its contemporary handling of the historical past. The dialogue about "playing with the big lads" is representative of a problem never resolved. A contemporary figure of speech, playing with the big boys, is used, but it is modified with the early 20th century substitution of "lads" for "boys." The result is neither fish nor fowl.

Worse, the sense of historical dislocation carries over into the acting where Huston and Lois Smith play their roles of older leaders of the suffrage movement as characters in a turn-of-the-century period piece, while Swank and O'Connor play their characters as women in a film set in 2004. It seems as if the filmmakers failed to ever decide what kind of film they wanted to make - or, at least, how far they were willing to go in their commitment to trying to make people of the past look, sound and think like today.

I admire Swank's performance, and applaud HBO for trying to tell such history in prime time. I wish, however, that they had chosen to tell history as it was and not dumb it down and dress it up as something it wasn't in the hope of attracting young adults. This is how a culture forgets its real past and remembers only the made-for-TV version that comes with a beat to which one can dance.

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