Review: Writer and Pundit Molly Ivins Gets the Last Word in Raise Hell

From first-time feature director Janice Engel, Raise Hell: The Life & Times of Molly Ivins is that rare documentary that might have more of an impact on someone unfamiliar with the writings and personality of Molly Ivins than those who know her fiery work intimately. In her six-foot-tall, “big-boned” (self-described) frame, Ivins embodied and recognized everything good and bad about her home state of Texas. As a local political reporter, she could outdrink and outtalk any of the good ol’ boys she was hanging around with in order to get the best insight for her columns that picked apart the many ways in which Texas politics was the perfect train wreck of a corrupt government.

Raise Hell Molly Ivins
Image courtesy of Magnolia Pictures

And in those instances where she was given a national platform (such as her stint at The New York Times), she made it clear that she believed that the Texas model would shortly become country’s form of government, and then in walked her old friend, Texas Governor George W. Bush, who was given license to dismantle the Bill of Rights the minute the World Trade Center buildings fell. Ivins combined humor and truth telling in a way few could or did, and it made her one of the most respected political writers to have ever brandished a typewriter, by both her allies and her enemies.

Raise Hell traces the birth of Ivins’ unique personality back to her childhood, raised by a father she adored and a mother who couldn’t stand her own children. She and her sister were often introduced by their mom as the “pretty one and the smart one,” with Molly embracing the latter moniker by craving education and insight, while still attempting to embody some type of traditional Texas beauty model. The film largely lets Ivins speak for herself, although some well known media types are certainly on hand to sing her praises. The wealth of archival footage of her being interviewed at various political gatherings and tributes to her allows her deeply accented words to make clear her philosophies and insight in ways that make us marvel at what she could come with off the top of her head. So it’s no surprise how eloquent she could be when she took the time to sit down and write and rewrite something. A highlight of the film is her and one of her closest friends, former Texas Gov. Ann Richards, trading barbs at a roast of Richards.

As much as Ivins maybe cherished as a humorist (she was not above dropping the occasional four-letter word in polite company), it’s her razor-sharp predictions about the direction of the country that gave me chills. She knew that politicians would turn voters into polarized people, seeing each other as the enemy rather than the crooked officials working for some interest group or another. Her words were like a crystal ball, and sadly she had a gift for fortune-telling.

By basically staying out of its own way and letting Ivins do her thing the way she did for decades, Raise Hell paints a clear and remarkable portrait of a woman who will never be duplicated and whose voice would be among the loudest today, if she were still with us (she died in 2007). Thankfully, the film rings louder and truer in her absence. Seek this one out.

The film opens today at the Landmark Century Centre Cinema.

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Steve Prokopy
Steve Prokopy

Steve Prokopy is chief film critic for the Chicago-based arts outlet
Third Coast Review. For nearly 20 years, he was the Chicago editor for
Ain’t It Cool News, where he contributed film reviews and
filmmaker/actor interviews under the name “Capone.” Currently, he’s a
frequent contributor at /Film ( and Backstory Magazine.
He is also the public relations director for Chicago's independently
owned Music Box Theatre, and holds the position of Vice President for
the Chicago Film Critics Association. In addition, he is a programmer
for the Chicago Critics Film Festival, which has been one of the
city's most anticipated festivals since 2013.

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