It’s hard to know which of my remembered impressions of Molly Ivins to trust in 2019. I clung to her rude, ruthless moral clarity toward the George W. Bush administration when I was a teenager, and so am tempted toward canonization.
But then I remember that was the period when I read David Brooks with real appetite, felt a vertiginous jolt of satisfaction seeing bombs go off in Afghan mountains even though I’d be screaming in the streets against Operation Iraqi Freedom 18 months later, generally clung to my schoolteachers’ maxims about capitalism being better than socialism.
If so many of my teen takes have aged so poorly – if I’ve grown happily out of such a bevy of them – perhaps the adulation I recall feeling toward Ivins’ work was also corrupt or corrupting?
Happily for anyone so benighted, there’s now a movie to help you answer all that. Happier still, it’s a delightful revisiting for everyone else who remembers precisely what they thought of the late, irascible six-foot ink-spiller. Raise Hell: The Life and Times of Molly Ivins is here, in the city that Ivins watched absorb the bad parts of Texas and leave the rest behind.
The most stylish and sleek documentarians look to beguile you with the manner in which they present their material. Director Janice Engel has the good sense to stay away from such tradecraft. Ivins was a goldmine of bon mottes and a stepping-razor nightmare to anyone in the bullshit business. Engel and editor Monique Zavistovski need only show her to you. Trying to add sparkle would detract from the thing.
It must have been a heaping challenge to winnow Raise Hell down to an hour and a half. Archival footage of Ivins cracking wise and skewering the powerful could surely have taken up twice as long on its own. And Engel has dozens of other characters to introduce, each with insights to share into Ivins’ character and career, mercifully few of them pulled from the national-fame rank of political media figures. She stitches the perspectives and stories of friends neatly and gently together with Ivins’ own highlight reel of speeches and quips.
Ivins was six feet tall by the time she was 12, her sister remembers early in the doc, with an “autocratic” oil-executive father and a burning revulsion toward the segregation and exploitation everyone born in 1944 grew up with. Seeing Humphrey Bogart play a newsman in Deadline USA made her dream of becoming a foreign correspondent in the teen years she cranked out a biweekly school newspaper.
With a stop in Paris before attending Smith – where she was third generation but still watched peers mentally knock “20 points off my IQ” at hearing her Texas accent – Ivins was on her way. Not toward the old-Hollywood fantasy life of international reporting, perhaps, but traipsing back and forth across all manner of cultural borders within her own country. She brought the Texas with her to Smith and the Smith with her back to Texas, then letting both carry her to a vital but miscast early stint at the New York Times before covering the riotous civil rights era in Minnesota.
Engel deftly illustrates the way racial-justice indignation – and a fury for the way politicians treated the poor -powered Ivins into and through her storied career. It’s a testament to how neatly masked her curatorial handiwork is that the stories appear to tell themselves. The one about how the Times publishers were never comfortable with how bawdy and whip-smart a correspondent they’d hired and eventually pushed her out for good over her use of the word “gangpluck” in a human-interest story about a day-long chicken slaughter in Colorado. The one about Minneapolis’ police department announcing they’d gotten a pig for a mascot and named it Molly after her summers browbeating the city’s harsh handling of civil rights protesters. The one about her trading barbs with old friend Ann Richards at a roast for the former Texas governor.
You get glimpses along the way of just how far ahead of the curve Ivans was. She was decrying the false objectivity that was universally accepted gospel in the business in her early years, making true arguments that have become fashionable of late but were heresy when she spoke them. She called the worm-turn of establishment Democrats toward poor-bashing and hippie-punching in real time, and with such cathartic anger that one pines to hear what she’d say about [gestures vaguely at 2019] all this.
Engel includes touches about Ivins’ personal life that will prick the souls of anyone working in her business – the loneliness, the alcohol, the fear that living healthily would seal up the well your efficacy springs from – but only lightly. Raise Hell manages to balance precious glimpses into how hard it must have been to be Molly Ivins at times, without getting lurid or draping her coffin in pity she’d have despised. It’s a graceful, delightful time machine of a documentary that will leave you both laughing and scrambling to the nearest bookseller to remember what it was like to have such a skillful knifethrower on your side.