‘Raise Hell: The Life & Times of Molly Ivins’ Film Review: Vital, Hilarious Texas Pundit Remembered in Vivacious Documentary

Sundance 2019: There might be a lot of talking heads, but few heads talked as wittily or wisely as this legendary political columnist

Columnist, humorist and author Molly Ivins died in 2007, but the new documentary “Raise Hell: The Life & Times of Molly Ivins” reminds us that her particular brand of perspicacity is as vital and as necessary now as it was when she covered the 1968 Democratic Convention or watched George W. Bush rocket from the Texas governor’s mansion to the White House.

Her trenchant observations about corrupt, lazy or flat-out stupid politicians was must reading then, and timeless in our current era. When one of the film’s many interview clips has her noting that the political spectrum in this country doesn’t run left to right, but rather top to bottom, it’s as relevant as anything in tomorrow’s newspaper.

Newspapers, incidentally, play a significant role in Ivins’ life story, as it’s told by director Janice Engel, making her theatrical feature debut. We follow the writer from gawky adolescent (she was six feet tall at the age of 12) in Houston and her collegiate travels to France before a whirlwind career. At the Minneapolis Tribune, her imposing stature allowed her to be the paper’s first female crime-beat reporter, and her coverage of police brutality made the local cops name their mascot, a pig, after her.

From there she was off to the Texas Observer, a rare liberal publication in the Lone Star State in the 1970s, and then The New York Times, which hired her for her singularly florid prose and then constantly tamped it down to fit Old Grey Lady style.

Her career really took off when she was given complete editorial freedom at the Dallas Times Herald. (Full disclosure: My first real newspaper job was at this now-shuttered publication; I once sent Ivins an intra-office fan memo.)

Her witty take-downs of the Texas legislature reached a national audience via syndication and several best-selling collections of her columns. And the timing gave her a front-row seat for the rise of W, who became the subject of two books she wrote with Lou Dubose, “Shrub” and “Bushwhacked.” (Having witnessed Bush in action for years, Ivins was less inclined than most to buy into his rosy descriptions of the Iraq War and its aftermath.)

But “Raise Hell” isn’t just about the work, as great as the work was. Friends and family paint a fairly rich portrait of an intelligent and occasionally conflicted woman with a strong will and even stronger sense of humor. Later in her life, she would battle both alcoholism and breast cancer, and she would occasionally be let down by the rare politicians she respected.

(Always a defender of society’s most vulnerable, Ivins took Bill Clinton’s welfare reform as a deeply painful betrayal.)

Engel’s subjects reminisce frankly about Ivins — this is a celebration but never a hagiography — and the requisite big names contribute interesting analysis regarding the writer as a Texan (Cecile Richards), a media powerhouse (Rachel Maddow) and both (Dan Rather). Formally speaking, the film isn’t breaking much new ground; the period-setting pop music and montage-friendly stock footage appear pretty much exactly where you’d expect. But Ivins herself was such a great raconteur, engaging speaker and drily witty interviewee that the plethora of old TV clips are themselves reason enough for the film to exist.

As even web outlets find themselves bleeding staff, and journalism becomes an increasingly precarious commodity, “Raise Hell” reminds us of the never-ending importance of those skilled observers with the ability to speak truth to power. And if, like Ivins, they can make us laugh while doing so, then they’re all the more essential.