The documentary “Raise Hell: The Life and Times of Molly Ivins” starts with several colorful, barbed comments delivered by the late political commentator and newspaper columnist, one of which is in answer to a question from talk show host David Letterman.
Letterman once asked Ivins what she thought of former Vice President Dan Quayle. After recalling that she had traveled with Quayle during his 1988 campaign (where she says she found him “dumber than advertised”), Ivins quips that, “I honestly think if you put that man’s brain in a bumblebee, it would fly backwards.”
The putdown might not be her funniest, sharpest or most countrified zinger in the film – which includes plenty more like that – but it’s emblematic of the way this outspoken champion of civil liberties and common sense put things in plain-spoken perspective.
“Raise Hell” takes a thorough, if traditional, look at the Texas-born, Smith College-educated writer’s life and career – a career that included stints at the New York Times and the Dallas Times Herald – and it includes interviews with her siblings, colleagues, friends and such media celebrities as Dan Rather and Rachel Maddow.
But it is when Ivins herself opens her mouth that the film is at its best. Whenever the movie presents archival clips from old interviews and lectures – or, as read by an actress, diary entries and letters – Ivins, who died in 2007 from breast cancer, comes alive.
When she herself is on the screen, Ivins makes for the best company for whom you could wish, and it’s easy to understand how the politicians she covered, on both sides of the aisle, liked to spend time with her.
Of course, those times were often spent drinking, and “Raise Hell” doesn’t shy away from talking about Ivins’ well-known alcoholism, or her belief that there is no such thing as objectivity in journalism as long as you let the reader know where you stand.
Other topics covered include accusations of censorship of the often-controversial writer – a progressive in Texas, among the reddest of red states.
When she worked as a syndicated columnist, for instance, some of the film’s interview subjects recall that newspapers would buy her column, preventing competing papers in the same market from doing so, only to withhold it from publication.
It’s not difficult to see why we might need to be reminded of a voice like Ivins’ again. With free speech under attack, and truth-telling seemingly in short supply, “Raise Hell” offers an entertaining and bracing look at one of journalism’s least punch-pulling practitioners.
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