The movies are like a machine that generates empathy; so said legendary film critic Roger Ebert and so it is with this wonderfully warm documentary about his life.
Roger Ebert is probably the best known and most beloved film critic in the world and after his long battle with cancer he sadly passed away in 2013. Life Itself is a documentary that celebrates his work, his way with words and most importantly his life well lived. Not only did he watch and write about the movies he so adored but he also lead a fascinating life with a story deserving of its own time to shine on the silver screen that he dedicated so much of his time to.
From Ebert’s first assignment as a sports reporter at his local paper at the age of only 15 to his troubles with the drink resulting in a stint at Alcoholics Anonymous right through to his final days of illness, Life Itself leaves few stone unturned when it comes to Ebert’s life. A great storyteller from the start, Ebert’s autobiography of the same name is the basis for this documentary with the voice of Stephen Stanton standing in for Ebert’s own voice which he lost due to tumours in his jaw. As Ebert nears the end and realises his time is up, his reflections contained in his blogging become more and more candid and James’ access to Ebert in his last days follows the man as he faces his illness with a brave smile. With archive clips and pictures and an healthy amount of famous faces to interview, Life Itself covers Ebert’s life from a personal perspective and from the point of view of those who knew him best.
Though the documentary was begun before both Ebert and his wife Chaz knew how little time he had left, director Steve James makes the most of the time that he does manage to get with the critic in his final months. Emailing Ebert questions and following him into hospital to witness some of the horrendous treatment he is enduring, the access is exceptional. What is more, Ebert has plenty of fans in the film world from directors Martin Scorsese and Werner Herzog to documentary maker Errol Morris and many fellow film critics. All these talking heads pop up to offer a fully rounded portrait of Ebert and to James’ credit he does not sugar coat the behaviour of his occasionally very difficult subject.
Life Itself deals in depth with Ebert’s rivalry with his co-star on Sneak Previews Gene Siskel, the pair bickering as much, if not more, off screen as they did in front of the cameras. It is frequently unflattering as both men behave in childish ways in a constant game of one-upmanship that appears to leave them miserable. As the movie studios learned to help then hate then fear these influential critics, Ebert’s head grew bigger and bigger despite some critics criticisms of the popularising of film reviewing. The tension between serious analysis and the superficial debate Siskel and Ebert offered is explored but takes a back seat to the rivalry, relationships and career of Ebert.
Covering Ebert’s brief stint as a screenwriter, his annual trips to the Cannes Film Festival, his talks at the Conference on World Affairs and his personal life with Chaz and his step-children, Life Itself feels full to the brim with all that makes life interesting. In fact, as the mood turns sombre and Ebert’s illness is frequently referred to, it is his wife who emerges as a huge hearted star. Always at Ebert’s side through the hard times, she is incredibly brave and touching in the film. Steve James’ documentary never feels too invasive when it could have become ghoulish and insensitive without Chaz’s involvement.
Life Itself is a wonderfully complete story of the life and death of Roger Ebert, a film the man himself would hopefully have given a big two thumbs up to.
About the Author
Pete Turner is a Senior Reporter for Tastic Film Magazine