I’m far from the only cinephile on Earth who deeply connected with Roger Ebert’s conversational but articulate, populist but erudite approach to film criticism. He was a magnetic writer and voracious cinephile for nearly half a century.
This documentary, made by Steve James (whose Hoop Dreams was such a darling of Ebert’s that its Oscar snub and the stink he raised reshaped nomination rules), doesn’t really contain any information that was new to me. I followed Ebert’s blog closely until his passing, and read many an obituary, so I knew of his health problems and widespread impact.
But there’s still something effective about seeing his story laid out all at once, with interviews and archival footage and narration of his memoir (be warned, though, it’s a “sound-alike” reading those passages, not Ebert himself).
Unsurprisingly — given his involvement and a creative team of friends and loved ones — the film is very generous to Ebert and spends most of its time exploring the arc of his influential TV show and the positive impact his voice had on many filmmakers. A particularly compelling bit shows Martin Scorsese describing how a Siskel and Ebert retrospective of his career helped him out of a creative funk. And the love between Chaz and Roger, who met in AA, pops off the screen.
But Life Itself doesn’t gloss over Ebert’s more prickly characteristics: His boozing days, his weight problems, his occasional sense of self-importance and stubbornness. My favorite clips in the documentary are deleted scenes from “At the Movies” of Siskel and Ebert trading insults that are only a little bit playful; both critics seem kind of nasty.
The movie does a great job showing the broad reach of his impact — filmmakers old and young sing his praises; revered fellow critics offer generous words and nuggets; everyday people cite their reverence for his stars and thumbs.
The movie packs a punch with its depiction of his physical debilitation; his dangling semi-attached jaw and crumbling will in the face of treatments and surgeries never feel dignified. We experience, almost real-time, his last few moments of intellectual spark. (Onscreen emails to James saying little more than “i’m fading” are genuinely haunting.)
The documentary craftsmanship itself is pretty prosaic and linear, moving through events at a steady and obvious clip. But the contents are pretty inherently cinematic, so it’s not much of a problem.
Life Itself it’s certainly not essential — and only occasionally illuminating — but it is impactful and worth a watch, especially if you loved Ebert’s writing.