As Life Itself reveals, a new documentary based on Ebert’s memoirs of the same name and following the last four months of his life, that man was flawed, petty, complicated, and bursting with a contagious thirst for life. Director Steve James, whose own 1994 documentary Hoop Dreams was launched into the public consciousness by Ebert and Siskel, does an astonishingly good job of combining all those elements to make a deeply affecting, triumphal portrait of the world’s most beloved film critic.
Bursting into his early career as an idealistic newspaperman, we rapidly get a feel for Ebert as someone who is enthralled and aggravated by important world events even as a young adult. He begins his career as film critic for the Chicago Sun-Times in 1967; in the same year, he wins his Pulitzer for the review he submitted for Bonnie and Clyde; ‘The fact that the story is set 35 years ago doesn’t mean a thing,’ Ebert wrote, ‘It had to be set sometime. But it was made now and it’s about us’. He clearly understood what makes films tick, and their relationship with the real world; likewise, Life Itself fully captures the same sense of idealism that drove Ebert not only as a critic, but as a human. It’s the same sense of wonder, and a capacity to be amazed, that he inspired a new slew of potential moviegoers with, bridging the gap between cineplex and cinephilia; the mindset that art movies were just for the elite, and blockbusters had only the masses in mind, was a notion that Ebert pushed against.
Right beside him was fellow Chicago critic, Gene Siskel, the Laurel to his Hardy; Steve James smartly bases their brothership as Life Itself’s backbone, and with some incredibly painful to watch outtakes from At the Movies, more is shown in these few seconds of their bond than even the brilliant talking head interviews with their spouses.
But why make a film about a film critic? Because the critic is, as Life Itself so eloquently portrays, just one part of Ebert; this was someone who lived a rich, varied life, worthy of documentation alone, but that life was also punctuated with some utterly bleak moments in the form of alcoholism, and the deaths of those close to him. But even during stretches of darkness, largely comprised of hospital-bound scenes were Ebert – voiceless thanks to throat cancer – is wheeled in and out of recovery by his loving wife Chaz, there is never a single shred of schmaltz to be found.
When he began making Life Itself, James had no idea that Ebert would die in the middle of it; this lends the film even more poignancy, and grants it a narrative that was never planned, or wanted. Life Itself doesn’t have a subtitle (Roger Ebert at his own Movie doesn’t have much of a ring to it), and that’s because it’s not about one man who influenced millions, or opened up the magic of cinema for millions more to enjoy; it’s about how one man looked at the world.