Film Review: ‘Raise Hell: The Life and Times of Molly Ivins’

This slick, enjoyable documentary pays tribute to the wit and wisdom of the firebrand Texas political commentator.

Raising Hell: The Life and Times of Molly Ivins review
Courtesy SFFilm

One of the more entertaining as well as insightful political commentators of the past half-century is paid a suitably entertaining tribute in “Raise Hell.” A long tall Texan too amusingly outrageous to draw real resentment from most of her targets, Molly Ivins nonetheless aimed stinging criticism at political figures both national and in her native state, where her liberal stance would’ve been controversial no matter how it was articulated. The late journalist’s career and witticisms are smoothly encapsulated by veteran documentarian Janice Engel’s slick feature, which seems a natural for broadcast, streaming platforms and possible limited theatrical release.

Raised in Houston’s toniest district of River Oaks, Ivins spent childhood “up a tree reading books.” When she came down, she was a six-foot 12-year-old whose mother considered her the “smart one,” her sister the “pretty one” — with the result that Molly thought herself ugly, and sister Sara worried she was seen as stupid. In any case, a conventional debutante’s path never seemed to be in the cards, to the annoyance of the stereotypically hard-drinking Texas oil man father Molly was soon clashing with. (A notable blowup occurred after she invited a black friend to swim in the family pool, back when segregation was at least as rigid in Texas as in the traditional South.)

Journalism seemed a natural fit, and the Smith College graduate was soon ruffling feathers by writing exposes of local racial disparity for the Houston Chronicle, then other papers. By 1971, she was covering the Texas legislature for the Texas Observer, ruthlessly sending up the good-old-boy politicos she could (and did) also “drink under the table” — a talent that would become a problem later on. Outsider politics combined with the insider status of a privileged upbringing (subsequent Gov. Ann Richards was an old friend) gave her unique access, and her caustically funny voice began accruing a following.

Ivins’ admirers soon included The New York Times, though once she was working there, its chief minders fast set about trying to tamp down the rowdy spirit that had gotten her hired in the first place. In 1981, she gratefully accepted an offer of “complete freedom” from the Dallas Times Herald, her column (eventually syndicated in up to 400 newspapers) winning Pulitzer nominations and best-selling book collections, and a launching her on a lucrative lecturing career. We see numerous excerpts from those speaking engagements, as well as her appearances as a pundit on TV, and no one who watches “Raise Hell” will be left doubting that Ivins could be as incisively serious-minded as she was often bluntly funny.

“Texas has always been the national laboratory for bad government,” she said, memorably, her related criticisms growing more prominent once the Bush clan’s political grasp expanded from the Lone Star State to the White House. (One can only imagine her scathing observations of the Trump era.) Her stinging indictment of conservative moral hypocrisy, special-interest money and such at home drew a great deal of hate mail and plenty of death threats. But she was no rubber-stamp for Democrats, either, growing so disillusioned with Bill Clinton (particularly over his welfare reform package, which she thought would push more people into poverty) that she refused to vote in the 1996 presidential election. After 9/11, her critiques took on a new, more poker-faced urgency, responding to a rush toward war and Big Brother society in the name of patriotism. That more sober tone might also have had something to do with her late-arriving sobriety. The film also notes her death, in 2007, after a seven-year battle with cancer.

“Raise Hell” doesn’t include a great deal of input from her foes, who likely remain more than a bit intimidated to compare their words with hers. Nor does it poke around much in Ivins’ private life, which admittedly appears to have been limited in scope: her workaholism and well-tuned public persona may well have been developed in part to avoid dwelling on the notion that an unmarried, childless career woman like herself was a “failure” by the standards she’d been raised with (and rebelled against). The doc briefly addresses the fact that her “life of the party” act resulted in numerous drunken embarrassments before friends orchestrated an intervention for which she was, by all accounts, thankful.

Apart from fellow celebrity journalists Rachel Maddow and Dan Rather, the long roster of interviewees here aren’t so much high-profile admirers as colleagues, close friends and family members, plus plenty of sometime sparring partners (like the late Richards) in archival footage. Ivins herself is always the star attraction, with clips over the years revealing a somewhat baffling diversity of personal “looks” (particularly concerning hairstyles), but a consistency of endlessly quotable wit with a theatrically Texas flavor.

Editor Monique Zavistovski’s pacing is so tight you wonder just how many good quips and anecdotes were left on the cutting room floor. The slick overall package is given an apt finishing gloss with the application of plentiful twangy music by various Texas rockers.

Film Review: ‘Raise Hell: The Life and Times of Molly Ivins’

Reviewed online, San Francisco, April 16, 2019. (In SFFilm. Also in Sundance, SXSW.) Running time: 93 MIN.

  • Production: (Documentary) A Gunslinger Prods., Two River Prods., Wild at Heart Films presentation. (International sales: Cinetic, Los Angeles.) Producers: James Egan, Janice Engel, Carlisle Vandervoort. Executive producers: Katy Drake Bettner, Mark Kaufmann, Lisa Kaufmann, Nion McEvoy, Leslie Berriman. Co-producer: Amber Howell.
  • Crew: Director: Janice Engel. Screenplay: Engel, Monique Zavistovski. Camera (color, HD): Kristy Tully, David Eberts, John Carrithers. Editor: Zavistovski. Music: Ethan Gruska.
  • With: Rachel Maddow, Dave “Moose” McNeely, Lou Dubose, Andy Ivins, Sara Ivins, Sarah Speights, Marty Maley, Dan Rather, Carlton Carl, Terry O’Rourke, Ronnie Dugger, Cecile Richards, Ben Barnes, Dave Richards, Don Carleton, Liz Faulk, Charles Kaiser, Linda Jann Lewis, Anthony Zurcher, Harold Cook, Betsy Moon, Ellen Sweets, Myra MacPherson, Anne Lamott, Paul Krugman.