Raise Hell: The Life & Times of Molly Ivins
Capturing the razor-sharp tongue of what might be the last great political columnist would be a feat and perhaps a fool’s errand. Raise Hell: The Life & Times of Molly Ivins puts up a good fight to get her big personality on the screen, and very nearly nails it.
For the uninitiated, the late Molly Ivins was one of the most popular and most hated political writers of the last century. The Texan stood tall over all of her targets, both literally and figuratively, and was not overly concerned with making friends. She referred to the subjects of her books and columns as “targets,” and she never missed. Such bombastic, large personalities as hers are practically born for the spotlight.
Director Janice Engel seems to understand this, and Raise Hell is the strongest when it merely sits back and lets Ivins run the show. Thanks to her high-profile career and frequent television appearances, a glut of archival footage is available showing Ivins ripping into the idiotic politicians of her day.
The documentary does not show anything exclusively from interviews, a la Maria by Callas, as there are plenty of talking heads from Ivins’ life to contextualize the woman and her perspective. From her siblings to Dan Rather and other contemporaries, many angles of her life are covered. Like many astonishingly funny people, Ivins wrestled with her own demons, which are touched upon briefly. We also learn heartily what elements came together in her early life to shape her unique voice and become the assertive woman she was.
Perhaps best of all, Raise Hell makes a subtle argument for Ivins’ prescient look at the future of American politics. With some clever editing and cutaways, we see that even though Ivins passed away in 2007, her predictions are evergreen. She saw the way the country was heading, and knew precisely what was pushing us that way. This agenda is by no means the focus of the film, or even a subplot, but rather a thread running through her life to show that her wise words are needed now more than ever.
This is not to say that Raise Hell is perfect. While it’s satisfying to see Ivins at her most articulate, the documentary itself lacks that edge. We flirt briefly with her shortcomings and possible weaknesses, but ultimately the profile has the same depth as an episode of Behind the Music. It’s a glowing love letter to the extraordinary woman, but when it comes to insight and criticism, the documentary leaves all of the ammunition to Ivins herself.
Raise Hell serves up Molly Ivins at her finest, and would be an easy introduction to a difficult woman.