Review: “Raise Hell: The Life & Times of Molly Ivins” Finds Truth in Journalism

Janice Engel’s sprightly doc is more appreciation for the acclaimed journalist than activism, and that’s a good thing.

When she worked as an intern for the Houston Chronicle in the late ‘60s, journalist Molly Ivins reflected her state. When she shifted to the Texas Observer, The New York Times, and The Washington Post, she grew to reflect her country. But for all her persona, she never emulated: she had Jackie Kennedy’s eyes, her bangs circling her brain like Dorothy Parker’s. She played with her accent and wore cowboy boots on the cover of her book. Her writings said the most, but even her persona took the piss out of the social caricature she toughly loved.

This theatricality weaves through Janice Engel’s documentary until the latent and the manifest bleed together. The biggest difference, though, is that while Ivins said the most with her words, director Janice Engel uses her surroundings. It’s more appreciation than activism, and part of this is by design. The reporter used her pen; the filmmaker uses a sword. This sword drips with ink and empathy, yes, and even though such an approach can play like a Greatest Hits compilation at times, it works best as a buck against black-and-white thinking.

That, at first glance, would restrict itself to politics, a sprinkle of blue in a sea of red. Thankfully, Engel has a patience about her. That isn’t to say Raise Hell: The Life & Times of Molly Ivins is a particularly smooth film, though. (It’s actually quite lopsided.) It instead works because the film operates in and plays with its grey area, entirely uninterested in going towards any true “side”. It, like Ivins, knows these polarities as a construct.

A still from Raise Hell: The Life & Times of Molly Ivins by Janice Engel, an official selection of the Documentary Premieres program at the 2019 Sundance Film Festival. Courtesy of Sundance Institute | photo by Robert Bedell. All photos are copyrighted and may be used by press only for the purpose of news or editorial coverage of Sundance Institute programs. Photos must be accompanied by a credit to the photographer and/or ‘Courtesy of Sundance Institute.’ Unauthorized use, alteration, reproduction or sale of logos and/or photos is strictly prohibited.

Make no mistake: there’s no centrism here. Far from it, in fact. Raise Hell finds Ivins’s iconoclasm in undeniably entertaining ways. The biggest surprise, then, is how these stretches play as the least inspired. Engel’s love for her subject is as clear as it is well-founded, but the extent to how she and editor Monique Zavistovski hold on the same content can make the doc err towards shallowness. The patterns at which the pair revisits the same archives show themselves and the movie can rely on the affection of the writer instead of its own arguments.

Thankfully, this is largely confined to the middle third. When it does work, it’s because it bathes in her contradictions. It renders her a human as much as it does a character, wringing the pride from her decisions in a landscape defined by its façade. Engel, through a variety of onscreen contributors, skates through Ivins’s upbringing, career, and cultural shifts that informed her. It bobs quite holistically between her criticism of the left and right alike. It’s a revolving door of politicians here — whether donkey or elephant, they’re all animals to tame.

The film operates in and plays with its grey area, entirely uninterested in going towards any true “side”.

That leads to how Raise Hell works at its most serendipitous: how it, using Ivins’s own words and actions, declares its subjectivity. For a movie about a woman who knew no one could be impartial, Engel knows her own biases, and she knows who’s probably in the theater. Some may call that preaching to the choir. In this case, it’s the self-awareness that saves the picture when it veers into its simplest rhetoric. It doesn’t absolve the director or her shortcomings, but it does add another dimension to her work.

The film works better as a whole than its parts: some of Zavistovski‘s editing and zooms ask the viewer to guess where the frame will end up three seconds after a picture comes on screen, and some stretches are simple without being repetitive. But why would anyone in their right mind ignore this icon? Why would someone, in a democracy where laughter versus tears, choose the latter? The answers may feel like a wild goose chase at times, but Engel manages to make the quest necessary, and more than a little fun.

Raise Hell: The Life & Times of Molly Ivins Trailer:

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