I’m watching 365 documentaries and writing about each one in 2014. Tweet your suggestions to @documentarysite, or send an e-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org. Read more.
Note: This post may contain spoilers.
Life Itself offers an honest, intimate portrait of movie critic Roger Ebert, a man who lived and loved the movies. Based on Ebert’s memoir by the same name, the documentary by Steve James (Hoop Dreams, The Interrupters) is both a tribute and an unflinching look at Ebert throughout his life and career.
Roger Ebert embodied the changes in American film criticism in the course of his career. He landed what is now a disappearing position at newspapers as a film critic for the Chicago Sun-Times in 1967 and never looked back. In 1975 he won a Pulitzer Prize for criticism. Later joined by Chicago Tribune critic Gene Siskel, he brought film criticism to television with a popular show. He wrote many books, mostly about film but also about rice cookers and London. Even after receiving a cancer diagnosis in 2002 and losing his voice in 2006, Ebert continued writing, and prolifically at that, his voice never lost among the words.
Life Itself offers tribute through the many people who befriended and admired Ebert. Filmmakers such as Martin Scorsese and Werner Herzog recall Ebert and their respect for him. Scorsese in particular recalls Ebert’s reviews furthering his career at some points and skewering his films at other points. Documentary makers such as Errol Morris, too, benefited from Ebert’s reviews and support. Ebert’s befriending of filmmakers drew criticism from other critics, but his doing so ultimately shows the importance of critics as part of the filmmaking community, not separate from it.
James’s documentary is also honest in its portrayal of a man so unquestioningly confident that he comes across as arrogant and stubborn. An extended sequence shows the difficult relationship between Siskel and Ebert. Clips and outtakes from their show reveal Ebert’s scathing criticism of Siskel. The documentary spends extended time on their competitive relationship, yet it was interesting to learn why Siskel’s name came first in show’s name: a coin toss. The sequence reveals much more, but I’ll let you find out about the other surprises when you watch the documentary.
The other honesty is more intimate, more vulnerable. Ebert’s cancer diagnosis resulted in multiple surgeries, which left him without a lower jaw and without a voice. A hip fracture in December 2012 put him back in the hospital, and James is there in the hospital room and in rehabilitation for some of the difficult times Ebert faced in his final months. These health issues show the strength of his wife Chaz and her struggles in this situation.
Ebert posted in his popular blog on April 2, 2013, about “A Leave of Presence.” He wrote, “What in the world is a leave of presence? It means I am not going away.” Sadly, he died on April 4, but through his writing and this documentary he is not going anywhere anytime soon.
Overall, James’s style is subtle and understated, with Joshua Abrams’s score adding without detracting. The visualizations of the director and Ebert exchanging e-mails shows their deep connection without making James central to the story.
Ebert’s story is in many ways a Chicago media story as well, as Life Itself shows. Chicago has a strong media industry rich in history, though more attention usually goes to the coasts. The rivalry between the Chicago Sun-Times and the Chicago Tribune is a long-running one in one of the few remaining two-newspaper towns. The shutting out of a popular Midwestern film-review show in New York and Los Angeles for many years is another example.
Life Itself debuted at Sundance 2014 after a successful Indiegogo campaign that raised more than $150,000. The Sundance debut was accompanied by a streaming perk offered to contributors who donated a certain amount, and every donor (including this one) received a connection to one of Ebert’s film reviews. A great movie about a great life — what more do you need?
Tissues. Lots of tissues.