'Raise Hell: The Life & Times of Molly Ivins': Film Review | Sundance 2019

Courtesy of Sundance Film Festival
Smart and entertaining, just like its subject.

A documentary about political columnist Molly Ivins brings her voice back to life.

In the midst of today’s war on and about journalists, it is blissful to spend 90 minutes in the presence of the late political columnist Molly Ivins. Smart, fearless and devilishly witty, she skewered the powerful with an unmistakable, impossible-to-duplicate style, using barbed humor to take down politicians and to highlight social inequalities. In the entertaining Raise Hell: The Life & Times of Molly Ivins, her voice and presence come through as if she were still here.

The documentary rarely presses its larger points. But it calmly reveals how much journalism has changed since Ivins started out in the late 1960s, yet how relevant her observations about the blight of corporate money in politics and threats to the First Amendment remain today.

Director Janice Engel talks to Ivins’ friends, family and admirers. But Ivins, who died of cancer in 2007, was a great storyteller, and Engel shrewdly lets her do most of the talking, in clips culled from television and onstage appearances.

The doc borrows its tone of colorful Texan bluntness from Ivins, and establishes it right away with a clip from Late Night With David Letterman. Ivins had followed Dan Quayle during the 1988 presidential campaign. “I found him dumber than advertised,” she says. “If you put that man’s brain in a bumblebee, it would fly backwards.”

She was 6 feet tall by the time she was 12, but grew into and played up an outsized personality. Her Texas roots gave her more than a persona, though. That perspective provided access to serious issues. “Texas has always been the national laboratory for bad government,” Ivins says, a pattern that she believed went national with President George W. Bush.  

In one clip, Ivins recalls how bleak it used to be for women in journalism. The expectation was that you’d be assigned to the “women’s sections” of newspapers and write about “food, fluff and fashion for the rest of your natural life.” But she got a master’s degree in journalism at Columbia University and made her way to The New York Times, where she covered Elvis Presley’s funeral and for a while was its entire Denver bureau.

As Ivins tells it, she and the Times were a hilarious mismatch. She wrote about someone "with a beer gut that belonged in the Smithsonian,” a description that landed in the paper, she says, as “a man with a protuberant abdomen.” Writing about a Colorado festival for killing and dressing chickens, she called it “a gang pluck.” The Times executive editor, Abe Rosenthal, was not amused, and that phrase didn't make it into print, either. Before long, she accepted an offer from the Dallas Times-Herald, which had promised her a column and “absolute freedom” to say what she wanted. The Molly Ivins the world came to know was launched.  

Her targets were mostly on the right. Shrub: The Short But Happy Political Life of George W. Bush — co-written with Lou Dubose, one of the most frequent commentators in the film  — was one of the best-sellers that made her famous. But she could be appalled by the left, too. In a private video included here, an uncharacteristically disheartened Ivins says she is so disgusted by Bill Clinton’s welfare reform that she will not vote for him or any presidential candidate in the ’96 election.   

The doc doesn’t dwell on her darker moments, but doesn’t entirely ignore them. Her friends say that she had always been proud of her ability to drink most men under the table, and believed that alcohol helped her cope and write. Not long before she died, though, they held an intervention and she went to rehab. Just months later she learned that the breast cancer diagnosed several years before had returned. She was 62 when she died.

The most valuable comments about Ivins come from the people closest to her, personally and professionally: her brother and sister, and colleagues like Dubose. But Dan Rather and Rachel Maddow, used sparingly, put her career appreciatively into context. “She was not afraid to be angry, but she made a case that she was doing it because it was deserved, and she made you laugh while she was doing it,” Maddow says of Ivins’ attacks on the powerful. “I don’t know anybody else who does that now.”

The closer Ivins’ commentary gets to our own time, the more prescient and valuable her observations seem. When she talks about “a particularly ugly kind of demagogic politics” taking over the country, the film juxtaposes a clip of Pat Buchanan at the 1992 Republican National Convention saying, “I will build a security fence,” with the 2016 convention, where the crowd chants “Build the wall!” Ivins sneers at the false narrative that Mexicans will take over and destroy America.

She departed before so-called “fake news” became a thing. Raise Hell makes it irresistible to wonder what fun Ivins would have had with Trump and Twitter.

Production companies: Gunslinger Productions, Two Rivers Productions, Wild at Heart Films
Director: Janice Engel
Screenwriters: Janice Engel, Monique Zavistovski
Producers: James Egan, Janice Engel, Carlisle Vandervoort
Directors of photography: Kristy Tully, David Eberts, John Carrithers
Editor: Monique Zavistovski
Music: Ethan Gruska
Venue: Sundance Film Festival (Documentary Premieres)

93 minutes