Film Reviews

Molly Ivins Doc Proves Everything’s Bigger and Better in Texas

Doc pays tribute to the late journalist

Courtesy of Magnolia Pictures


Raise Hell: The Life and Times of Molly Ivins
(USA, 93 min.)
Dir. Janice Engel

You can take the girl out of Texas, but you can’t take the Texas out of the girl. Raise Hell: The Life and Times of Molly Ivins pays tribute to a late journalist from the Lone Star state who was bigger and better than many of her peers. Media buffs and newshounds will enjoy Janice Engel’s portrait of Ivins and the standard of journalism she embodied. The film celebrates the life and work of a voice that captured the attention of readers across America. With her thundering voice, unfiltered views, and dogged determination to hold the establishment to account, Ivins represents an outspoken point of view that anticipated the state of journalism today.

Engel charts a rollicking biography of Ivins from cradle to newsroom to grave. The film conveys how a person is a product of her upbringing as Engel explores Ivins’ well-to-do childhood as the impetus for her journalistic rigour. The child of an oil and gas executive father and barely-mentioned mother who raised her in an affluent corner of Houston, Texas, Engel shows how Ivins grew up surrounded by power and privilege. However, the film observes how, as a girl who grew up to be six-feet tall and big boned as a teenager, Molly often looked at her community with an outsider’s eyes.

The film recounts Ivins’ early work in journalism and salutes her as a rare woman to achieve meaningful work outside the lifestyle section at the time. Humorous reflections tell viewers how Ivins’ imposing stature and bigger-than-life personality stood out in the overwhelmingly male newsrooms. Ivins recalls in archival interviews how she used her misfit status to further her work. She laughs that her physical presence and unwavering persistence intimidated her editors.

Archival footage and new interviews allow Engel to walk audiences through Ivins’ prolific body of work. Ivins’ contemporaries recall how she was fearless in taking the establishment to task and didn’t differentiate between friends and foes when it came to holding politicians accountable. Her voice echoes loud and clear throughout the film as Engel presents numerous snippets bearing Ivins’ byline. Read in voiceover and reflected upon in the archival interviews by Ivins herself, her columns evoke a signature voice.

The Texas twang of Ivins’ prose further illustrates how she shook up the media establishment. Her colourful language attracted readers just as much as it alienated them, and the film offers a variety of nuggets in which readers either wrote letters to the editor or called in to talk shows to voice their ire over Ivins’ outspoken views. A highlight sequence sees Ivins sacked from The New York Times when editor Abe Rosenthal quivered at her use of the term “gang-pluck.” The creative term described a frenzied chicken-killing festival with a provocative sexual connotation.

Engel lets Ivins and her peers explain how Times readers never got down-and-dirty with the “gang-pluck” since Rosenthal scrubbed it out. But they recall how the wordplay earned Ivins new badges of honour and notoriety alike. The film argues that mainstream outlets like the Times aren’t ideal platforms for voices that go against the grain. But that weakness benefits independent publications that support alternative views, as the snippets of Ivins’ colourfully worded syndicated columns and books suggest.

Her way with words, however, speaks to the state of journalism today. The idea of objectivity in journalism is a running point of contention in the interviews with Ivins. Engel shows how Ivins’ believed objective journalism to be a fallacy because a person’s upbringing inevitably dictates his or her worldview. Instead, writers may follow Ivins’ lead and make their views clear while presenting fact-based reportage and opinion. Some salt is necessary to interpret one from the other, but as more outlets favour columns, op-eds, and essays, one sees how Ivins was ahead of her time.

Raise Hell offers a companion piece to this year’s other journalism portrait, Mike Wallace Is Here. One wonders what Ivins’ might have made of such adulating celebrations of reporters, but she would have raised a beer to the final sections of the documentary that add some warts to the portrait. (One suspects that This Is Not a Movie might have earned a better review from Ivins.) Engel acknowledges that Ivins’ workaholic lifestyle was inevitably lonely and isolating, which one may see in the writer’s excessive drinking. Ivins so frequently has a beer in her hand that she makes Don Draper look like a teetotaler. Although the tone is undeniably festive, Engel doesn’t settle for lifestyle section fluff.

The final act of the film sees Ivins fire hard at her fellow Texan George W. Bush while undergoing a seven-year fight with cancer. Bush, one of Ivins’ favourite “targets,” illustrates why the Texas twang of the writer’s voice is so central to the film and its subject. Bush embodies a stereotypical Texan spirit—what Ivins calls a “Bubba” in the film to characterize a loudmouth, uncouth, machismo Texan. But Ivins is careful to distinguish between her idiosyncratic drawl and reality, while she sees Bush ramming Texas-style politics into the national agenda. Through 9/11 and the invasion of Iraq until her death in 2007, Ivins dropped some of her best zingers while roasting Dubya. One can only imagine how delightful, and urgent, her column would be today.

Raise Hell: The Life and Times of Molly Ivins screens at Hot Docs Ted Rogers Cinema on Dec. 4 and 5 as part of the Doc Soup screening series.