With its wealth of examples of the wicked wit of its title subject, “Raise Hell: The Life and Times of Molly Ivins” is expectedly entertaining.
Along with that, this documentary, opening Friday at the Opera Plaza, inspiringly demonstrates, 12 years after Ivins’ death, how peerless and prescient the political columnist and free-speech advocate remains.
Filmmaker Janice Engel, making her big-screen feature debut, combines photographs, clips from television and lecture appearances, and recent interviews with relatives, friends and admirers of Ivins — Rachel Maddow, Dan Rather and Cecile Richards, among them — in this conventional but engaging chronological portrait.
After opening with Ivins in jokester form (ridiculing “dumber than advertised” veep candidate Dan Quayle), Engel looks at Ivins’ Houston childhood. The 1944-born Ivins had a conservative oil-executive father (we learn almost nothing about her mother) and, by age 12, stood 6 feet tall. She would soon learn to use her misfit status to her advantage.
She attended Smith College, interned at the Houston Chronicle, and got a master’s degree so she could do serious reporting at a time when newswomen were assigned “food, fluff and fashion” stories. She wrote for the Minneapolis Tribune and, with Kaye Northcott, edited the Texas Observer.
The New York Times hired Ivins for her colorful writing style, only to consistently cramp it. Ivins hilariously relates how the Times would alter her prose. A man’s “beer gut that belonged in the Smithsonian” became a “protuberant abdomen.”
Ivins accepted an irresistible offer from the Dallas Times Herald: to write a column about whatever she wanted.
Her targets included George W. Bush, aka “Shrub”; Pat Buchanan and his Trumpish “security fence”; and Bill Clinton, a Democrat, whose welfare policy Ivins deemed a betrayal.
The persona she adopted, which included a Texas twang and a populist-liberal sensibility, helped Ivins deal with fame.
Engel also details challenges Ivins faced, including battles with alcoholism and breast cancer.
This isn’t a particularly original or revelatory documentary. And one wishes that Engel had included more of Ivins’ sharp condemnations of sexism.
But the film winningly celebrates Ivins’ unique journalistic spirit and brilliance for saying dead-serious things about power-abusing politicians in ways that made people laugh.
The interviewees provide enlightening stories about Ivins, with subjects ranging from her conflicts with her father to her ability to drink male cohorts under the table and her fear that she couldn’t be funny without alcohol.
Most impressive are her prophetic observations: about the U.S. occupation of Iraq, the effects of corporate money on politics, and government assertions that becoming a safer nation requires compromising freedom.
Ivins’ detractors (and she had many) will disagree, but this documentary makes one want to see Ivins alive today, skewering the current powers that be.
Raise Hell: The Life and Times of Molly Ivins
Written by: Janice Engel, Monique Zavistovski
Directed by: Janice Engel
Running time: 1 hour, 33 minutes