Documentaries can introduce us to a person we’ve never heard of and leave us baffled as to how long we’ve gone without them in our lives. Raise Hell: The Life and Times of Molly Ivins is one of such films. Director Janice Engel paints a vibrant picture of Molly Ivins, the Texan journalist whose career of lambasting the inequalities of American politics makes for a brilliantly paced and riotously entertaining watch, and a reminder of the necessity for keeping those in power accountable.
Touted as a beer-drinking, truck-driving, all-American Texan who infiltrated the male-dominated reporting scene with a razor-sharp sense of humour, a well-practiced talent for writing, and unflinching determination, Molly’s titanic presence is felt throughout the documentary. We’re treated to an incredible wealth of archival footage and endless laudatory interviews with those she knew and inspired. As we dart from one acid-tongued column to another, we watch the growing momentum of her career and the refinement of her voice, veering between political and cultural milestones and always enjoying her scathing take on them.
Playing 90 minutes of Molly roasting her peers would have been a completely acceptable documentary, as the footage of Molly’s fiercely intelligent and laugh-out-loud witticisms are the highlight of the film. Our jaw drops and our sides hurt as her lyrical Texan drawl tears the politicians of her time to shreds and weaves delightfully clever jokes at the expense of everyone she deems worthy of criticism. A highlight is her anecdote of confidant Texan governor Ann Richards challenging the polite acceptance of misogyny by contemporary society that have us shrieking with laughter.
Engel makes sure to identify the struggles Molly faced, meaning we enjoy the highs of her career all the more because we know how hard she worked to get there. Being a progressive in 60s Texas, being a female journalist, and being outrageously outspoken all present sizable obstacles, and we’re always rooting for Molly’s brilliant voice to come out triumphant. While at times we may worry the film will end up a glossy summation of an interesting life, we’re stirringly reminded of the rock-solid ideals behind all of Molly’s writing. She operates within a society where people are routinely exploited and lied to, her criticisms are reserved for those who mislead and oppress.
Occasionally the preparedness of her well-written jokes make us feel like she’s keeping up a front that, while reminding us of her intelligence, also prevents us from understanding in any significant depth the person behind the prose. Towards the end of the film interviewers ask her about personal issues, and for a moment we see suspicion and vulnerability in her face as her insecurities are prodded at. A further dive into Molly’s guardedness would have been appreciated, but the entertainment value from this film is difficult to ignore. Raise Hell is an undeniably fun ride, and we feel overjoyed that we were ever blessed with someone like Molly Ivins.