‘Raise Hell: The Life and Times of Molly Ivins’
Playing in the Documentary Premieres section of the 2019 Sundance Film Festival. Running time: 91 minutes. Next screenings: Tuesday, Jan. 29, 6 p.m., Park Avenue Theatre, Park City; Friday, Feb. 1, 3 p.m., Redstone Cinemas 2, Park City.
Journalists make unlikely heroes — we’re usually too jaded, too cynical, and too tired — but the late Molly ivins, the jaunty chronicler of Texas politics and stalwart defender of the First Amendment, is one of those heroes, and the documentary “Raise Hell: The Life and Times of Molly Ivins” is the profile of her that we have needed.
She was a striking figure, six feet tall with flaming red hair, with the ability to drink heartily and a mouth that would make a longshoreman blush. Raised in Houston by a domineering father, Ivins attended Smith College, studied in Paris, and got her journalism degree from Columbia. She worked briefly for the Minneapolis Star-Tribune, before going home in Texas in 1970 to be co-editor and political writer at the alternative Texas Observer in Austin.
Thus began a long career of pointing out the foibles of the Texas Legislature, of which there were many. The New York Times hired her away in 1976, but didn’t quite know how to handle her iconoclastic spirit. A high spot of her Times career was getting the byline for Elvis Presley’s obituary and flying down to Memphis to cover the funeral. The low spot was when she covered a “community chicken-killing festival” in New Mexico and tried to get the phrase “gang-pluck” past the copy desk and the Times’ imperious editor Abe Rosenthal.
Texas beckoned again. The Dallas Times Herald gave her a political column in 1982, and she worked there until 1991, when the rival Dallas Morning News bought the paper and shut it down. She moved over to the Fort Worth Star-Telegram. She also syndicated her column to more than 400 papers, and wrote for Mother Jones and other publications. (The documentary omits my favorite Mother Jones column of hers, an appraisal of culture critic Camille Paglia: “Christ! Get this woman a Valium!”)
Director Janice Engel includes some of Ivins’ best witticisms. There was the time when she called former vice-president Dan Quayle “dumber than advertised” and said that “if you put his brain in a bumblebee, he’d fly backwards.” Or there’s her assessment of Pat Buchanan’s infamous “culture war” speech at the 1992 Republican National Convention, which she said “probably sounded better in the original German.”
Engel also shows when Ivins got serious, like when she and investigative reporter Lou Dubose dissected George W. Bush, as he went from Texas’ governor to the presidency.
Chock full of interviews with friends and the occasional political opponent, the documentary doesn’t shy away from Ivins’ demons — namely her alcoholism and the cancer diagnosis that ultimately killed her in 2007. Engel also compares the political landscape then to now, and leaves the open question of how righteously angry Ivins would have been if she had encountered President Donald J . Trump. One suspects she would have cut him to ribbons, like a ninja assassin