Poignant documentary points the camera at the life of movie critic Roger Ebert
Directed by Steve James
Documentarian Steve James got to know film critic Roger Ebert the same way a lot of filmmakers did—when the Pulitzer Prize-winning Chicagoan reviewed one of his films. Ebert became a booster of James’ work, starting with his Academy Award-nominated 1994 documentary Hoop Dreams. At the time it’s doubtful James could have imagined he’d be the one to chronicle Ebert’s final days on film. But that’s exactly what happened in 2013 when James set out to give cinematic life to Ebert’s nostalgic, literary memoir Life Itself. Shortly after James started shooting the documentary, Ebert suffered a relapse of the cancer which was to take so much from him, including—ultimately—his life. What began as a project in reminiscence became a sustained grace note on the end of a long and storied career.
Life Itself ends up chronicling Ebert’s final months, but it’s in the past that the film is most deeply rooted. Ebert was a newspaper nerd of the highest order. From an extremely young age, he lived and breathed printer’s ink. At 15 he was already publishing professionally. He was barely out of college by the time he got snapped up by the Chicago Sun-Times, a company he would work loyally for his entire life. The film critic thing? It was just an assignment. One that lasted 46 years.
Life Itself touches lightly on various aspects of Ebert’s life and career. The defining portion, of course, belonged to his movie review show with crosstown rival Gene Siskel. The show was broadcast under various names and in various incarnations. “Opening Soon at a Theater Near You” (1975-77), “Sneak Previews” (1977-82), “At the Movies with Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert” (1982-90) and “Siskel & Ebert & the Movies” (1986-2006) defined the chubby Ebert and the gangly Siskel as America’s premier authorities on Hollywood and beyond. If you grew up on movies, you grew up watching Siskel and Ebert.
Ebert was a great writer. Not in a wordy, overly elegant way. But in that deeply knowledgeable, truth-spewing, populist style to which Chicago newsmen have always aspired.
That their relationship was contentious is hardly a news flash. Much like its subject, however, Life Itself looks back on those scrap-happy days with the fondness of a life well-lived. Certainly Siskel’s 1999 death from brain cancer left its mark on Ebert. Siskel refused to reveal his condition to even close friends and family members. Ebert, who knew nothing of his TV partner’s cancer until it was too late, vowed to live his life in a much more different way. So when Ebert was diagnosed with thyroid cancer in 2002, he spoke and wrote openly and honestly about it.
It’s no surprise, then, to find Life Itself so unblinking. The film admits Ebert’s various flaws (his alcoholism, his ego, his often thorny personality). And it certainly doesn’t shy away from Ebert in his final, hospital-ridden days. His medical difficulties were great, and it takes a certain sturdiness to bear witness to what he went through. But even as the curtain was closing, Ebert remained a vivid and colorful personality. Despite being robbed of his voice, he produced voluminous daily essays on his website and joked aloud with the assistance of a computer. Woven throughout the film are various email conversations that Ebert and James engaged in over the course of the production. James would email a question, and Ebert would wax nostalgic over his favorite Chicago haunts or his abrupt decision to give up alcohol or his late-in-life marriage (to trial attorney Chaz Hammelsmith). This was supposed to lead to a big on-camera interview. Time ran out. But that’s OK. Ebert’s naked words are enough.
Ebert was a great writer. Not in a wordy, overly elegant way. But in that deeply knowledgeable, truth-spewing, populist style to which Chicago newsmen have always aspired. Toward the end of his life, Ebert was more interested in talking about long walks with his family than he was about the state of the modern movie industry. But it was movies that shaped his entire life and thought patterns. “Movies are a machine that generates empathy,” Ebert is quoted as saying at the beginning of Life Itself. While the documentary doesn’t dwell too heavily on individual opinions of Ebert’s, it pauses occasionally for the epiphanies. Bonnie and Clyde, Raging Bull and Cries and Whispers are just a few of the masterpieces that make appearances here.
Noted directors like Martin Scorsese, Errol Morris and Werner Herzog drop by to sing Mr. Ebert’s praises (or to recount occasional feuds). Friends, family members and fellow film critics do much the same, giving the film the occasional air of an extended eulogy. But Ebert remains such a lively (and at the time of filming, still kicking) topic of conversation, that Life Itself never feels gloomy or downcast. Roger Ebert loved what he did and did what he loved. For damn near his entire life, Ebert and his work were inseparable. He was the movie guy. And it’s only fitting that he should live on in the movies.
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