Some crusading journalists write with a scalpel, others with a scythe. Molly Ivins, who famously dubbed President George W. Bush "Shrub," used both. She was funny and mean, clever and sincere; most of all she was political to the bone — or at least that's how she reads on the page and came across in talks. (She died in 2007.) Samples of each are scattered like acid-dipped chocolate nuggets throughout the hagiographic documentary "Raise Hell: The Life and Times of Molly Ivins."
Whether you chuckle or snort will likely depend on your political persuasion, though it's clear that the filmmakers aren't aiming to seduce conservatives. Ivins spent part of her early career at the Minneapolis Tribune, where she drew ire with a 1969 series on the Twin Cities' "young radicals." This documentary is a loving, at times fawning portrait aimed at the Ivins faithful who read her syndicated columns and bestselling books or showed up for her speeches. It's a familiar biographical tactic, but some critical distance might have made for a deeper, stronger movie.
Director Janice Engel clearly spent a heroic amount of time piecing the movie together with her editor and co-writer, Monique Zavistovski. Using the chronology of Ivins' life as a narrative spine, Engel delivers the up-close and personal, deploying archival material and interviews to fill in a picture of a bookish child turned freethinker.
The movie follows Ivins' professional and political evolutions, adding piquant details, quotes and testimonials along the way. Born in 1944, Mary Tyler Ivins grew up in a wealthy Houston suburb. The movie makes it clear that her father, a conservative oil and gas executive, cast a large shadow over his daughter. By contrast, her mother scarcely registers.
As "Raise Hell" hits the milestones — from Smith College to journalism, including a memorable stretch at the New York Times — it colors in Ivins' emergence as a professional Texas contrarian. It's a fascinating metamorphosis, one that Ivins elliptically addressed in a taxonomy of Texan culture ("all rotten for women") in her 1991 collection "Molly Ivins Can't Say That, Can She?" Like a ticked-off anthropologist, she wrote of "the pervasive good-ol'-boyism of the Redneckus texenis, that remarkable tribe that has made the pickup truck with the gun rack across the back window and the beer cans flying out the window a synonym for Texans worldwide."
At the same time, she drew power from those she opposed. In the same article she wrote that it is the "virulence of Texas sexism that accounts for the strength of Texas women."
Ivins can seem like a blast, but she also seems awfully lonely and sometimes more sad than mad. She obviously enjoyed fighting — and writing — the good fight, and exulted in the persona she cultivated. But all those battles seemed to take a toll There are a lot of beer cans in "Raise Hell," something you notice before her fans gently address her struggles with alcohol. Ivins kept smoking and drinking after she learned that she had cancer. Her hair fell out, her tongue stayed sharp. And the Molly Ivins that she invented keeps on giving in a legacy that engulfs this movie.