"For me, the movies are like a machine that generates empathy. It lets you understand hopes, aspirations, dreams, and fears. It helps us to identify with the people who are sharing this journey with us."
It wasn't an entirely unexpected thing when film critic Roger Ebert passed away in April, 2013. He was very transparent about his battle with cancer from the time he first announced he was diagnosed with the disease in 2005. It was part and parcel with who Ebert was as a writer and a person that he would open himself up to people the same way he had in his movie reviews, books, and various other writings. Always willing to share personal insight, without ever allowing it to overwhelm his opinion on a film, was one of the things that made Ebert the foremost film critic of the modern age. Life Itself is a documentary based on his 2011 memoir of the same name, made by Steve James, a Chicago documentarian whose film Hoop Dreams had Ebert as perhaps its most vocal supporter.
Life Itself was begun five months prior to Ebert's death, and spends a good portion of the film in Ebert's hospital room where he was confined after a leg fracture. Sparing none of the gruesome details of what life was like for him in his final weeks, the film spends most of its time in the past, recounting Ebert's history as the editor of The Daily Illini, the newspaper of the University of Illinois where he attended, despite dreams and talent worthy of Harvard. Ebert is remembered by his friends and colleagues as a ruthless pragmatist who also possessed an incredible talent paired with an equally large ego. Five months after landing a part-time job at The Chicago Sun-Times in 1967, Ebert is given the job of film critic, a bit of a joke position at the paper, but one which Ebert immediately elevates to an art form, thanks in no small part to his 1970 Pulitzer Prize.
Ebert struggles with alcoholism, as well as his ever-inflating ego, before being paired with fellow Chicago critic Gene Siskel of the infinitely more prestigious Chicago Tribune for a movie review program on public television in 1975. The two men were combative, antagonistic, and ultimately incredibly respectful of one another. Once Ebert finally kicked his alcohol addiction, he met Chaz, the woman who would come to be his wife and remained by his side for the last twenty years of his life. Ebert began to mellow, but never lost his ferocious and fiery attitude, becoming a champion of the underdog and becoming lionized by not just the critical community, but by filmmakers who craved his acceptance of their product.
While it may seem on the surface like a film with very narrow appeal, Life Itself is a story that anyone can relate to, no matter their connection to Ebert or even film in a broader sense. Film was the conduit for Ebert's enjoyment of life, but never took him so far away from all that life had to offer that he couldn't relate to virtually anyone. The film also may sound like a reverential, glorified puff piece made by a man who owes everything to this critic, but it does not shy away from the seamier elements of Ebert's life, whether it be his alcoholism, his ego, his womanizing, or his desire to be close personal friends with people in Hollywood. If anything, it paints him as a real human being to show the less desirable aspects of his life, and as James and Chaz admit, he wouldn't have wanted it any other way.
That the film is a tale spun by such an incredible raconteur as Ebert, and realized by a master documentarian like James makes it one of the absolute best films of this or any year. Ebert's life has the makings of a classic redemption story, surrounded by a rivalrous friendship and an amazingly tender love story. As the egotism of his youth and early middle age gave way to the much more humble man he became in his later years, the true impact of Ebert on film as a whole becomes evident. His thumb and the direction in which he pointed it came to be a major selling point for studios and filmmakers, and in a classic superhero arc, Ebert learns that with great power came great responsibility. As he becomes a champion of the next generation of critics, and begins to embrace the 21st century model of blogging and social media, the full weight of his loss becomes noticeably immense.
The film really hinges on the two most important relationships of his life, one with Siskel and the other with Chaz. The constant tête-à-tête with Siskel as they try to not merely convey their opinion of a given film, but also convince the one is right and the other is wrong, provides the film with much of its humor and some of its heart. His relationship with Chaz tips the scales the other way, giving it most of its heart and even some of its humor. When Chaz reveals, for the first time in this documentary, that she met Roger at an AA meeting, we begin to get a picture of two damaged souls that found the perfect salve in one another. The scenes with Chaz reflecting on Roger's final days are among the most crushing and devastating in the film, and are likely to pierce the heart of even the most hardened and cynical in the audience.
The film also doesn't shy away from the brutal medical procedures he must undergo, giving an unsparing look at the end of his life, driven in part by the fact that Siskel kept his illness a secret from everyone, including Ebert, until the very end of his life. That the film also lined up participants as diverse as Martin Scorsese, Ava DuVernay, Errol Morris, Werner Herzog, and Ramin Bahrani is also a testament to how much Ebert meant to people in the industry. The film is very inside baseball so to speak in regards to its filmic content, but it's also incredibly accessible to those who perhaps don't make their living in the same industry. It's a perfectly balanced film that reflects all of the virtues which Ebert himself would champion, and which are perfectly summed up in his quote from the beginning of my review.
Life Itself is, quite simply, one of the best documentaries I've ever seen. All of us can only hope to come to the same realizations later in our lives that Ebert came to, and that is why it's a film that will appeal to everyone. Ebert's greatest gift to the world at large was his ability to show us that we're all artists at heart, no matter our medium, and that we can love our work as much as we love our lives. The film perfectly encapsulates what a great film should be, and it beats with the heart of a man who loved film above all else except, perhaps, life itself.
The film is available On Demand, via iTunes, Amazon, and most other streaming services, and is also playing in limited release in theaters across the country.
GO Rating: 4.5/5
[Photos via BoxOfficeMojo]