The fearless and ferociously funny political columnist Molly Ivins once said, “There’s only three reactions to most of politics: you can laugh, you can cry, or you can throw up. Crying and throwing up are bad for you, so you might as well laugh.” For over four decades, the hard-drinking, hard-smoking liberal did her damnedest to ensure her readers did just that as she spoke truth to power with a no-holds-barred attitude and a bitingly satirical locution that left myriad politicians roasted in her wake. Her humor was nothing short of ruthless, but it was so firmly rooted in both cutting through all the bullshit of politics and a tireless advocacy for the little guy that her indifference in offending those who so frequently abused their power became perhaps her most endearing and useful asset. She took joy in sticking it to corrupt politicians and, more importantly, she was really good at it.
Thanks to the plethora of impassioned interviews and public speeches that Ivins gave throughout her career, all the way up to her untimely death in 2007, Janice Engel’s Raise Hell: The Life and Times of Molly Ivins has a wealth of raw materials from which to draw. And for much of the documentary, Engel simply lets that archival footage roll, allowing her silver-tongued subject to speak for herself, revealing exactly what she was fighting for and who she was fighting against, with both a sense of humor and love for justice.
Long before the notion had any political cachet, Ivins spoke ardently about income inequality, and despite the fact that her targets were often right-wingers, she was forthright in her belief that the political spectrum runs not from right to left, but rather “from top to bottom.” Sure, she made fun of Dan Quayle (“If you put that man’s brain in a bumblebee, it would fly backwards”), led a tireless crusade against George W. Bush, whom she derisively called “Shrub,” and was most viciously funny when mocking the stupidity of various Republicans in her home state of Texas. But she also never hesitated to call out Democrats when they stopped actually working for the people, at one point calling their party leadership “gutless” and “wishy-washy,” and later baldly stating that she would refuse to vote for Bill Clinton a second time after his welfare reform assured thousands of children would end up in poverty.
Raise Hell is at its best when its focus remains on Ivins’s fierce commitment to her ideals and willingness to speak her mind without caring that it could cost her access to certain leaders. But as its title suggests, the film isn’t just about the times of Molly Ivins, but her life as well, and the detours into her combative relationship with her strict father, her inability to fit in at prestigious, but restrictive, institutions (be it Smith College or The New York Times), and her struggles with alcoholism and sexism all help paint a fuller portrait of how Ivins turned out the way she did. But Raise Hell is less compelling when a bunch of talking heads describe her personal battles than it is when it captures Ivins in action.
Because Ivins is such a captivatingly witty speaker, any screen time taken away from her is inevitably something of a letdown. But Engel still ensures that her subject’s tenacious spirit is abundantly on display, allowing Ivins’s message of the power of the people to make a difference comes through loud and clear, and with an urgency that is galvanizing in any era. Although Ivins died years before our current post-truth era, her fortitude combined with an uncanny ability to spin the most troubling, depressing realities into pure comedic gold helps point the way to remaining both sane and resolute in an increasingly insane world.