In the opening minutes of “Raise Hell: The Life & Times of Molly Ivins,” the legendary political columnist wants to dispel the mythic nature that surrounds her home state of Texas, using the occasion of a TV interview to say “the sky is bigger because no one planted any trees, cowboys mostly stink and it’s oppressively hot.” Yet the subsequent 90 minutes of Janice Engel’s spirited biography proves the state produced at least one larger-than-life figure you could believe in.
Despite the litany of interviews Engel conducted with friends, peers and admirers such as Rachel Maddow, Dan Rather and Paul Begala, “Raise Hell” does well to have the irreverent and inimitable Ivins speak for herself, despite passing away in 2007, drawing on a wealth of archival material from speeches, interview and her must-read columns from a career that began at the Houston Chronicle and led to the New York Times, the Texas Observer and eventually national syndication where she had no one to answer to but a devoted readership. So famous for her quick wit and savage observations about the political scene in Texas that would birth Future president George W. Bush that she got her own TV commercials, Ivins’ prickly prose that could at once cut to the quick of any posturing of politicians is honored by a fast-paced, frank and funny history that despite the writer’s myriad achievements never feels pretentious.
Whereas interviewees grin at her memory and occasionally can’t bring themselves to speak as boldly as she did – naming her beloved dog “Shit” will do that – Ivins regales with stories of both politicos and editors she pissed off and outlining a dire system of government that lead many to suggest she’s a prophet, recognizing early that America’s political spectrum has become not a system divided between right to left, but from the top to bottom. As Engel delivers a relatively straightforward portrait, you see her evolution through covering the police beat in Minneapolis where she wrote extensively on cases of brutality and then found her voice reporting on the Texas Legislature for the Observer where she’d get the best dirt by drinking congressmen under the table.
Although fans of Ivins are likely to have heard some of these stories before, it is true to its subject that “Raise Hell” is still likely to shake up the image one has of her. Acknowledged as an outsider from the time she was 12 when a growth spurt literally made her tower above the rest of her class at 6’ tall, Engel discovers how adept she was at changing to stand out at whatever environment she was in, getting a masters’ degree to evade the “snake pit” at the Chronicle covering “food, fluff and fashion” as most female journalists were assigned, and leaning more heavily into a Texas twang during the ‘80s in a shrewd bit of self-marketing to start a freelance career after her job at the New York Times went south after run-ins with editor Abe Rosenthal, even though a colleague describes her as having a more unplaceable accent earlier like Jackie Kennedy, given a worldly background that included a Smith College education and a detour to France.
Given what a force of nature Ivins was, Engel’s job involves more restraint than having to jazz things up – despite a rollicking piano score – and both her selection of interviews to give perspective on Ivins’ life that she was in little to no position to speak on herself, whether it was her alcoholism or her proximity to some of her sources, and the way she lets her words reverberate to speak to the current political climate without putting too fine a point on it is exceptionally considerate. While so many biographies play out as somber celebrations of life, Ivins gets a real party and you suspect its subject would want it no other way.