Wednesday 21 October 2020

Golly: "Raise Hell: The Life & Times of Molly Ivins"

Colossal dunderhead that I am - or, more forgivingly, Brit with scant feel for American party politics that I am - I'd no idea who Molly Ivins was before heading into Janice Engel's documentary Raise Hell. But here she is: nationally syndicated, Pulitzer Prize-winning political columnist, blowing out of Texas like a tornado, living (indeed, larger-than-life) proof that this state is, as one interviewee puts it, "America on steroids". Ivins was a big personality, evidently - bigger and more durable than most of the mediocrities she reported on. (You'd struggle to cast the lead in any Molly biopic, though a cross between Candice Bergen and the recently deceased Conchata Ferrell might have fit physically.) Ivins was a born storyteller, as becomes amply apparent from the chatshow appearances and book-circuit Q&As the film freely excerpts. The challenge Engel faces is to dig beyond the legend and bring us closer to the real Molly Ivins, even less well known as she may be on this side of the Atlantic. This she does, while also noting how this one woman's story closely intersects with the story of America in the second half of the twentieth century. Born into a segregated state, Ivins found her political voice amid the civil rights movement of the 1960s, then became one of many women to make a name for themselves professionally in the Seventies by elbowing their way into what had previously been boys' clubs. She was a progressive at heart, and was as pilloried for that as she was adored - but she tended to deliver those progressive sentiments with a six-pack of beer close at hand, and in a drawling Southern accent that led many to assume she was Republican by birth. In actual fact, Molly Ivins demonstrated even do-gooder Democrats sometimes like to take a drop.

Engel squeezes this life into that familiar 90-minute, TV-ready documentary template: her film is fast, fun and doesn't linger for long, either on the screen or in the imagination. Its chief selling-point is a lot of Molly herself: the well-polished anecdotes, the colourfully choice turns of phrase ("Texas politics is like Hungarian wine: it does not travel well"). Central to her journalism was a refusal to maintain any illusion with regard to elected officials, variously dismissed as "bozos" and "adolescent pissants"; of one councilman, she could be heard to remark "If his IQ slips any lower, we'll have to water him twice a day". Unsurprisingly, colleagues line up to pay fulsome tribute, from those who nurtured her talents back home to the more illustrious likes of Dan Rather and Rachel Maddow; Engel places Ivins firmly in a tradition of sceptical, often irreverent political scrutiny, which in turn answers the question of why anyone should revisit this story now. If Raise Hell has a serious purpose - if it's anything more than just a Molly Ivins greatest-hits collection - it's to position its subject in opposition to that latter-day client journalism that has wreaked so much damage on public discourse and wider Western democracy. Molly Ivins was too much her own gal to bow down or suck up for access, and too damn opinionated to both-sides a story; it made her a tricky employee, but it ensured that neither she nor her writing went soft on the system. Though of the Left, she damned Bill Clinton as "wishy-washy" (for which the New Statesman might substitute "neo-liberal"); the Engel line is that Ivins saw the rot creeping in at an early stage. (Is that why she upped her alcohol consumption in her later years? Looking back from 2020, you could hardly blame her.) The framing's more conventional than this subject would have likely allowed for, but Engel succeeds in making an engaging and entertaining case for Ivins as among the sharpest chroniclers of her era - and if you have a daughter looking to get into journalism, political or otherwise, Raise Hell might just play to her like the superhero movie of the year.

Raise Hell: The Life & Times of Molly Ivins opens in selected cinemas from Friday.

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