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'Raise Hell'? Yes, Molly Ivins certainly did, as documentary shows

Joe Gross
"Raise Hell: The Life & Times of Molly Ivins" is director Janice Engel’s sharp, well-paced and thoroughly enjoyable documentary on the titular Texas journalist.

[Contributed by Alan Pogue/Magnolia Pictures]

Molly Ivins saw it coming.

Around the turn of the century, as the Texas governor she (and others) called “Shrub” became the president of the United States, the increasingly legendary Ivins opined in her national column that U.S. politics was about to become a lot more like the Texas from which George W. Bush came, no matter the “compassionate conservative” tag. As she once put it, “Texas has always been the national laboratory for bad government.”


» Interview with the director: Molly Ivins doc brings Texas icon to a new generation

It is impossible to watch “Raise Hell: The Life & Times of Molly Ivins,” director Janice Engel’s sharp, well-paced and thoroughly enjoyable documentary on this remarkable woman, and not have your wig pushed back at the thought of how Ivins, who died in 2007 from a savage form of breast cancer, would regard the White House’s current occupant. (The film screened at South by Southwest earlier this year and hits Texas theaters this week.)

Then again, to watch it is to wish she was around to comment on all sorts of things: An incredible Astros season. The culture of annoying IPAs. And, oh, yeah, the fact that we have concentration camps in her home state.

Born in 1944 to a well-heeled Houston family (you don’t get to be third-generation Smithee without being part of the elite) headed up by a domineering father, Ivins grew up extremely tall, extremely funny and extremely smart. The latter two made her a good journalist; her compassion made her a great one.

She started out covering civil rights, eventually landing at the Texas Observer in the early 1970s (not a bad spot for a woman who admitted freely that she didn’t believe in the existence of journalistic objectivity), where she covered the Texas Legislature with a savage wit.

It didn’t hurt that she could match her colleagues, sources and opponents drink for drink, a habit that became the full-blown alcoholism that shadowed her until a comparatively late-life intervention. Engel spends only little bit of time on that issue and almost none on Ivins' private life. Her pals seemingly declined to discuss it, other than to note a couple qualities of Ivins' that proved problematic for romantic relationships: She didn't want to be controlled by a guy, and men were reluctant to ask out someone funnier, tougher and smarter than they were.

» Related: Watch the trailer for ‘Raise Hell: The Life and Times of Molly Ivins’

After a turn at the New York Times reminded Ivins why it was colloquially called the "Gray Lady" in the first place, Ivins returned to the Dallas Times Herald in the early 1980s, a place that offered her the “complete freedom” to write whatever kind of politics column she chose, which is also known as hitting the jackpot. Ivins soon was syndicated in about 400 newspapers, becoming a one-woman industry of political wiseacre-ism mostly (but not always) directed at conservatives. She grew a little sick of Bill Clinton, writing him off completely after the 1996 welfare reform bill.

Post-9/11, Ivins saw the writing on the wall, so she in turn wrote about the greatly limited freedoms she knew were just around the corner. She also got sober, eventually, after the drinking got less fun and less funny.

Most of the talking heads in "Raise Hell" are fellow journalists, both nationally known (Rachel Maddow and Dan Rather, naturally) and famous in Texas (looking good, former American-Statesman reporter Dave McNeely). But naturally, Engel's film pops to life whenever archival footage of Ivins appears. A substantial presence even when sitting, Ivins mixed a million-watt smile with a bone-dry delivery such that even when the jokes don't completely land (they can't all be winners), you find yourself just happy to be witnessing her weapons-grade sarcasm.

When Ivins' columns ended weeks before her death in 2007, the absence was felt across the country. As “Raise Hell” notes, perhaps the greatest thing Ivins did through her work was making her readers feel less alone. May that be said of anyone in the writing game. Resquicat, ma’am.

‘Raise Hell: The Life & Times of Molly Ivins’


Grade: A-

Starring: Molly Ivins, Rachel Maddow, Dan Rather.

Director: Janice Engel.

Rating: NR

Running time: 1 hour, 33 minutes.

Theaters: AFS Cinema, Alamo Lakeline, Alamo Mueller, Alamo South Lamar.