Raise Hell: The Life and Times of Molly Ivins
Director/ Janice Engel
Watched in Theater
After seeing this documentary with my wife and daughter in the arthouse Roxy Cinemas in Missoula, Montana, my daughter remarked that it should have been titled Molly Ivins on C-Span. Without the copious interview footage from the cable channel this movie wouldn’t exist. Or, more to the point, it could exist, but only by relying solely on the standard features of the hagiographic biopic craze: endless, repetitive testimonials from friends and family; fraudulent mini-reenactments of filler B-roll; faked voice-over; animated news clippings; and generalized archival footage of epochal events substituting for the personal home movies that no one bothers to film or save anymore.
Such is the condition of this trendy, tiresome sub-genre of documentary. Hal, Marley, Montage of Heck, Gonzo, Life Itself, and any number of the docs coming out weekly about musicians, chefs, architects and fashion designers, all deliver up unimaginative treatments of lives celebrated precisely because they were lived with a fierce commitment to imagination and unconventionality. I always find myself wondering how the subjects of these films would react to these banal depictions of their own lives. With lacerating wit? Withering criticism? Unbounded crankiness?
Ivins would no doubt have employed each of these verbal weapons to excoriate this film; its glib soundbites, its sanitization of intimate details, its perfunctory backslapping, its egregious sprinkling of phony moments (a black-and-white snippet of a man, meant to be her father, mixing a drink; a stock-footage like scene of a cocktail party) and its tacky gimmicks (a dumb map gag; the sound of a gunshot punctuating the news that her father killed himself–an editorial choice that should be enough to ban the film’s makers from ever getting near an editing suite again).
But Ivins–who died in 2007 after a long battle with breast cancer–probably would have been happy with the scenes of her interviews and speeches. Ivins had the timing of a stand-up comic and the mouth of a longshoreman, and most of this doc’s only value is in listening to her take down the fools, hypocrites and puritans of the ruling class. She is always entertaining, in spite of this film’s eye-rolling clichés and formulaic technique.
The lauded, Texas-born Ivins was a singular voice in journalism, and she had to wade through a lot of bullshit to achieve that voice. Minimized by a stern, waspy father and ignored by the newspaper patriarchy, Ivins never allowed herself to be muzzled or manipulated. When she got a dream job at the New York Times because the paper liked what she had to say, she soon realized that they didn’t like her saying it on the pages of the Times. She was exiled out west and eventually ended up back in Texas working for the Dallas Morning News, where she was twice nominated for a Pulitzer.
Ivins was a self-described populist. She never blamed the people for being suckered by a politician, she blamed the politician and the political machine. But you have to think that even Ivins would have been appalled by Trump’s cultists, and I spent a good part of this movie musing on what she would have said about him and them. The tragedy of Ivins’ death is that she left us right when we needed her most.