By any measure, Roger Ebert was one of the most influential film critics of all time. Because of him, his partner/antagonist Gene Siskel and their iconic TV show, a generation of people (including me) grew up not only loving movies, but also wanting to express our thoughts about them to the masses.
It’s because of Ebert’s influence that making a documentary about his life doesn’t seem out of place. Life Itself, directed by Steve James (Hoop Dreams, The Interrupters), takes its title from Ebert’s autobiography, but the film is far from a straightforward retelling of his life.
What makes the film especially memorable is footage of Ebert in the final months of his life as he struggled through setback after setback.
Instead, James hopscotches around, using archival footage and checking in with various people close to Ebert to get their take on the man. What makes the film especially memorable, though, is that James was able to film Ebert in the final months of his life as he struggled through setback after setback.
Ebert, who had his lower jaw removed during his battle with thyroid and salivary gland cancer, was not shy about showing the realities of his condition. Still, the idea of actually being able to see through his mouth to the bandage on his neck takes some getting used to. The fact that he kept up a full regimen of watching and reviewing movies — not to mention filming this one — during that time is gobsmacking.
The basics of Ebert’s life — writing for the Chicago Sun-Times since the late 1960s, collaborating with skin flick maestro Russ Meyer, teaming with Siskel on television — hold few surprises for anybody familiar with him, but it’s the details that make those parts of his life fascinating. He was a man capable of both remarkable empathy and tremendous anger in varying situations, and James ensures that neither side is given short shrift.
However, it’s the interviews with filmmakers like Martin Scorsese, Errol Morris and indie director Ramin Bahrani that yield the most insights. Scorsese credits an honor from Siskel & Ebert with not only reigniting his passion for filmmaking, but possibly saving his life. Morris says the two critics’ championing of his first film, Gates of Heaven, gave him his career. And Bahrani shows off a gift of such depth from Ebert that only a person with great thought and compassion could have conceived of it.
Reminiscing about At the Movies/Siskel & Ebert, as could be expected, takes up a decent portion of the film, but it is actually less than fans might be expecting. Siskel and Ebert’s contentious relationship is given the most screen time, but there is no mention of Ebert’s time with Richard Roeper following Siskel’s death, not even an interview with Roeper himself.
Encapsulating a life as diverse as Ebert’s in one movie is a fool’s errand, but James more than does him justice. Movie criticism may be a dying profession — or, at least one that doesn’t have the impact it once did — but Life Itself gives Ebert the send-off he richly deserves.