Sundance 2019: Raise Hell: The Life and Times of Molly Ivins is rousing tribute to one of best American political columnists ever

In the trade publication Editor and Publisher, when nationally syndicated columnist Molly Ivins died in 2007 after a triple bout with cancer and its complications, Greg Mitchell recalled in a piece headlined Molly Ivins: The Plucking Truth a classic moment that eventually would lead the stuffed shirts at The New York Times to send her packing. In 1980, she had written a piece about a chicken slaughtering festival in New Mexico that she characterized in her inimitable style as a “gang pluck.”

When Ivins died, newspapers around the country recalled that incident using the original phrase as she had written, which Mitchell says stood out “not because it was her sharpest or funniest, but because it helped spark her departure from The New York Times.” Yet, as Mitchell aptly put it, the ‘Grey Lady’ “chickened out” in the end. In its obituary about Ivins, the Times wrote, “she used a sexually suggestive phrase, which her editors deleted from the final article. But her effort to use it angered the executive editor, A. M. Rosenthal, who ordered her back to New York and assigned her to City Hall, where she covered routine matters with little flair.” As Mitchell wrote, the obituary editor held steadfast that the standard had not changed at the Times since the incident 27 years earlier and the remark still stood as “gratuitous” in his estimation.

Molly Ivins.

Janice Engel does full justice to that incident and so many more iconic moments of one of the country’s most popular newspaper columnists of the last 50 years in her latest documentary Raise Hell: The Life and Times of Molly Ivins, which received its premiere at Sundance this year.

Engel frames Ivins’ outstanding career with all of its proper merits. Ivins was a sharp thinker, even sharper writer who disavowed the pretenses of objectivity, false equivalence and whataboutism that have dragged political journalism into its current distressed state. She perfectly fused the pedigree of her education at Smith College and Columbia University with the plainspoken wit of west Texas and the liberal urbane tones of Austin. Engel’s documentary resonates so well in Ivins’ true voice that one sincerely misses the column writing style that framed the contemporary social and political issues with devastating accuracy.

In an interview with The Utah Review, Engel says that Ivins was an equal opportunity critic in politics, as she went after both Bill and Hillary Clinton with the same rigor that she used with conservatives. “Ivins reminded us that populism isn’t just for the right wing, but there also is progressive populism,” she adds.

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.

Observing the scene of Texas politics, Ivins flexed her journalistic muscles that earned her as much respect as disdain. She had dubbed George W. Bush a “shrub.” A close friend of the late governor Ann Richards, she shrugged off concerns about her connections, which some critics said compromised her objectivity. Ivins was transparent and honest about her connections, foibles and relationships. The ongoing obsession with objectivity has been misapplied and misinterpreted and always has been unnecessary for journalism, when the emphasis always should have been on accuracy and truthful characterizations of the acts and policies of public officials. One only can imagine what Ivins’ would have written during the era of former Texas governor Rick Perry who ignored every media outlet that endorsed his Republican primary opponent (Kay Bailey Hutchison) when he ran for reelection in 2010. Perry chose instead to overwhelm the airwaves with a massive ad campaign, funded by the Republican party’s huge fund-raising advantage in the state campaign.

And, one can only imagine how she would have handled President Trump in her commentaries. While she heavily criticized Bill Clinton during his presidency, which included not voting during his 1996 presidential reelection campaign, she mentioned several times that the barrage of attacks on him was unfair.

Engel’s research is meticulous, thanks to the endorsement and access the ACLU and The Texas Observer provided, which allowed the director to study Ivins’ personal notes, books, and video footage. Few newspaper columnists could claim the breadth and depth of popularity Ivins earned, primarily for her effortless wit to spin a phrase that stuck in readers’ and editors’ minds. C-SPAN was a major broadcast outlet but Ivins seemed equally at home on the set for The Late Show with David Letterman. She donated her time to speak on First Amendment issues regularly to ACLU chapters across the country, preferring to speak at smaller chapters located in places around the country where one might not think such an organization would have a presence.

Ivins’ final book was BILL OF WRONGS: The Executive Branch’s Assault on America’s Fundamental Rights (2007), a manuscript she collaborated on with Lou Dubose, as they had with an earlier book titled Bushwhacked (2003). The book resonated in richly detailed accounts of individuals whose rights had been impaired by the larger effects of Bush Administration’s domestic and foreign policies. And, despite Ivins’ inevitable weakening of her body, her wit bristled as pungently as ever: intelligent design was “creationism in drag” or “the battle of the bulge” about a social studies teacher who was disturbed by an image in an elementary school textbook of a painting depicting George Washington crossing the Delaware. Apparently, the offended teacher thought her students might see a bulge between Washington’s legs as his penis. Ivins wrote that perhaps he did see it but added that it was a watch fob.

Ivins’ writing always brought out loud laughter and Engel’s documentary contains so many examples that will delight audiences throughout the screening.

Molly Ivins appears in 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.

The film also covers the most significant personal details of her life, including her childhood days where her father demanded military-like precision and obedience when his work day was done. At six feet tall and with size 12 shoes, Ivins was not intimidated by anyone. Engels adds, “she was always rattling the cage to speak her truth and no one could ever say, ‘oh, you poor dainty little thing.’” She could match anyone drink for drink in a bar.

Engel makes clear that Ivins’ most significant personal achievement was her decision in the very last years of her life to quit drinking and stay sober – a story told especially well in the film. “She was one of the most courageous people I ever encountered,” she says. “She decided that she wanted to go out clear with her eyes wide open.”

Engel, who teaches documentary film at the Academy of Art University in San Francisco, says she encourages her students to critique and be aware of the message about objectivity, when it is subjectivity that matters and leads to the enlightening epiphanies. “I ask them: ‘Are you being honest to the truth,” she explains, adding that then one can state an opinion that rings credibly and sincerely.

The title for the film comes from a line in that final book by Ivins and Dubose: “Raise hell. Keep fightin’. And don’t forget to laugh once in a while.” Engels brings it home in a perfect tribute to one of the finest writers to grace the political commentary scene ever in the history of American journalism.

Remaining Sundance screens for the film will be Feb.1 at 3 p.m. in Park City’s Redstone Cinemas and Feb. 2 at 6 p.m. at the Salt Lake City Library Theatre.

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