Documentary Review: “Raise Hell: The Life and Times of Molly Ivins”

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Molly Ivins had a method, a way of looking at the world, at Texas and later American politics, when coming up with an idea for her magazine and newspaper columns.

She’d raise an eyebrow, maybe let her jaw drop in advance of the words of incredulity she was about to Texas-drawl out.

“Do what?”

One of the great gadflies, wits and champions of the underdog America has ever known gets her due in documentary form in “Raise Hell: The Life and Times of Molly Ivins.”

You can get a sense of her lingering impact — she died of cancer in 2007 — by the famous peers who get choked up in the film’s final interview clips, marveling at the marvel she was and remains in the journalistic memory.

But mostly, “Raise Hell” is a movie of laughs, because nobody ever popped the balloons of political pretense like the hard-drinking, chain-smoking six-foot permanent “outsider” Molly Ivins.

On covering Dan Quayle in 1992 — “I found him dumber than advertised. Put that man’s brain in a bumblebee, and the bee’d fly backwards.”

Newt Gingrich? “You,” dramatic pause, “speak of the draft-dodging, dope smoking deadbeat dad who divorced his dying wife?”

She labeled her beloved Texas, “the national laboratory for bad government.”

Yup. Still scathing after all these years.

Prescient and pointed, skewering and sending up the powerful, Ivins cut a wide swath through American political coverage in a career that took her from The Texas Observer to The New York Times, then back to Dallas and Fort Worth. She was the modern political equivalent of Mark Twain with a column, an on-stage humorist and wit following that ancient credo of great newspaper reporters — “Afflict the comfortable and comfort the afflicted.”

Director Janice Engel reminds us that Ivins started life as the former and ended her days as the latter. Born into Texas oil wealth, private school-educated with a year in France as part of that, college at one of the prestigious Eastern “Seven Sisters” (Smith College), Ivy League grad school, Ivins rebelled against that privilege when she discovered, in the late 1950s, how wrong she found her rich, racist “authoritarian” father’s views to be.

That led to civil rights protests, where she was arrested, and confrontations with the old man. It also led her into journalism, taking her fellow Houston Chronicle interns out sailing on Daddy’s yacht, launching her career in Minneapolis where the local police adopted a pig as a mascot (in the late 1960s) and named it “Molly” because of her coverage.

She went home shortly after that to become a loud liberal voice in a state not known for them.

“I’m a Texan. I drive a pick-up truck. I drink beer. I cuss. I hunt. I’m a liberal. So what?”

Using Willie Nelson tunes and ZZ Top riffs to underscore her words, Engel tracked down legions of Ivins’ peers to celebrate her life and work, as if Ivins’ words alone are not enough.

Rachel Maddow, Paul Krugman and Dan Rather — as well as relatives, old friends and less famous colleagues remember the take-no-prisoners writer, the hard-drinker who rubbed elbows at the bar with many of the people she took down in print, the imposing smart aleck who found advantages to “towering over editors” such as the snooty, imperial Abe Rosenthal at the New York Times.

Her politics were liberal populist, something she decided it was best and “honest” to get out there as “there’s no such thing as impartiality” in journalism. She was optimistic beyond her droll, “Cheer up. Things could be worse. You could be in Texas.

Her view that “politics aren’t left to right, they’re top to bottom,” she preached like America’s Texas-born/Columbia U. grad-school educated civics teacher.

“We are the board of directors. We own it. They’re just the people we’ve hired to drive the bus a little while.”

Engel samples the decades of hate mail, death threats included, the irate calls that came in whenever she was plugging a book (“Molly Ivins Can’t Say That, Can She?” was the most famous) on CSPAN.

All part of that “outsider” thing, making her life and her living in one of America’s most reactionary states where, as more than one friend put it, she “went after people who had power who were abusing that power.”

She wrote Elvis’s obituary, and then covered the funeral for the Elvis-ignorant New York Times, went back to Texas again and became nationally famous as the Bush Dynasty took hold of America. Ivins was Bush II critic in chief, and an authoritative deflater of Texas Exceptionalism.

“The reason the sky is bigger here is…we’ve got no trees.”

“Texas is not a civilized place. They shoot one another. A lot.”

For 90 minutes, Engel lets us swim in Ivins salty, sarcastic, scathing and very funny words — getting serious about “holding a grudge” against Bill Clinton for going along with welfare reform that would take food from hungry children, rolling her eyes at the many moments of public doltishness of “W.”

Political “targets” don’t turn up in Engel’s film. None of them, even though we hear “Clinton loved her” despite her withering columns on that welfare “reform.”

As prescient as Ivins could be about “dark money” taking over American government via politics, maybe the best advice she could pass on for today’s general (liberal, centrist, sane) gloom is the way she looked at her world, something her friend (and Texas Gov. Ann Richards’ daughter) Cecile Richards says kept Ivins sane.

“If you were a progressive in Texas, if you couldn’t laugh you weren’t going to last.”

3half-star

MPAA Rating: unrated, some profanity, smoking and drinking

Cast: Molly Ivins, Rachel Maddow, Paul Krugman, Dan Rather, Sara Ivins Maley,Ann Richards

Credits: Directed by Janice Engel, script by Janice Engel and Monique Zavistovski. A Magnolia release.

Running time: 1:33

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