Review by Dominic Messier, Founder and Editor
To those who knew the man in passing, either through the TV shows or through the Chicago Sun-Times, film critic Roger Ebert was a fair but stern voice for quality productions, small-scale projects worth exposing to greater audiences and a proud man unafraid to denounce utter celluloid crap.
To the rest of us who’d eventually get a chance to spend whatever available time with the man at various functions, junkets and signings, he was a warm and generous fellow, one who wasn’t without his faults and quirks outside of his public image as one of the most recognizable film critics in the business.
This is why it was both emotionally difficult and rewarding to see Ebert’s life tenderly and honestly recounted in Steve James’ moving documentary Life Itself, based on Ebert’s 2011 memoir.
Though it could easily have glossed over the Pulitzer Prize winning writer’s personal issues such as alcoholism in the 1970s, frequent discord with competing critic and eventual friend Gene Siskel and other items on a list of forgivable flaws, Life Itself uses James’ camera to apologetically examine the raw Ebert, both through his last few months combating injuries stemming from cancer complications as well as his life milestones, seen in well-edited flashbacks often accompanied by a haunting voice-over narration from a sound-alike actor (a move I was first offended by, but strangely warmed up to), helping us through the out-of-sequence chapters from Ebert’s memoir so to keep from the rigid and Dickensian David Copperfield chronological life story format.
The film hits all the right notes, not focusing so much on movies and review pieces but on the perspective of a man who gave so much of himself in the name of openly discussing a difference of opinion between film viewers, an eventually growing trend which indirectly helped change the way we look at movies today.
James’ documentary takes care to include tender and often brutally intimate moments between Ebert and his wife Chaz, ranging from playful banter to tenser moments brought on by frustration at having lost his voice following the removal of his lower jaw due to a tumor several years prior. A forgivable offense, to be certain, but also a very touching peek into a formidable marriage.
The filmmaker also captured the essence of the man as described by the late critic’s closest friends and business associates, ranging from his old cronies at the Sun-Times to fellow critics and filmmakers like Martin Scorsese, each offering a sobering testimony to the life spent next to a respected peer.
This film is a generous and warm look at a life well lived, one filled with an unparalleled love of film, the good company of friends and foes alike and an unquenchable thirst to write and write, literally for the sake of argument.
I wholeheartedly recommend this movie, to anyone who’s ever enjoyed Ebert on television or has ever wanted to be a writer, about film or otherwise (also the reason you’re reading this article, had Ebert himself not personally talked me into it 13 years ago). It is a genuine testament to a writer of intelligence, a lover of the seventh art and an inspiration to so many who followed him.
4.5 out of 5