"Life Itself" is a moving chronicle of Roger Ebert's life of letters and film
"Life Itself," the new documentary about the life and times of the late film critic Roger Ebert, is a moving chronicle of a writer, a husband and a man devoted to his passions. It is also an unflinching view into the daily struggles of an individual struck by illness and the harrowing, emotional toll. Directed by Steve James (Hoop Dreams), "Life Itself" is told with a special intimacy and sense of life's breakneck course. For decades a cultural staple, Ebert made his name first as the film critic of the Chicago Sun-Times and then as the co-host, with Chicago Tribune critic (and rival) Gene Siskel, of the TV show "Siskel & Ebert" which invented modern, televised film criticism. But for many (or those who have not read the eloquent autobiography on which the film is based), this film will reveal tales, truths and details never known before about Ebert. Some are wonderful, some dark, others simply fascinating.
In 2005 Ebert revealed he had been diagnosed with cancer, and James intercuts the seasons of Ebert's life with raw, searing footage of Ebert in convalescence with half of his jaw removed, adjusting to a new life and routine next to his dedicated, heroic wife Chaz.
While Ebert is known for his role as a film critic, his "thumbs up" or four star rating system much coveted by studios and filmmakers, James is essentially telling the story here of a born writer. Ebert's early days as a high schooler already working as a sports writer, at a local paper in Illinois, are recounted with nostalgia by acquaintances as the formation of a wordsmith on the rise.
But the film really becomes engaging once Ebert joins the Sun-Times at the age of 28 and is named the paper's film critic after only five months. Here the film takes on the energy of the newspaper and journalist lifestyle. Old friends reminisce about his wild drinking days, when all-nighters were common and hangovers a constant shadow every morning. It is impactful to see Ebert confess his alcoholism and how his life could have ended sooner. There is a blunt, frank assessment that is allowed from the interview subjects which include colleagues and old bar pals. They at times admit that Ebert could be nice, but he could also be an egotistic jerk, a man too aware of his own skills who would relish in being a show off.
Details like these give "Life Itself" a unique quality, because it is about life in all its honesty. A lesser director would have made a mere tribute, instead James lets Ebert's deeds and life speak for themselves. For what is a life without trial and error?
One of the the most amusing sections of the documentary involves the story of Ebert's TV partnership with rival critic Gene Siskel. Raw footage from "Siskel & Ebert" tapings reveals the tense moments both men could conjure, full of snide remarks and a fierce competitiveness. And here we also see the joy of debating film as a battle of brains and wills ensues between both men when discussing the latest releases. There are great moments where we see the duo disagree over now established classics like "Apocalypse Now" and "Scarface" (Ebert liked both, Siskel did not).
The insider details on the legendary relationship between both critics can range from cringe-inducing to hilarious. Ebert recalls how early in their partnership, both men would enter an elevator on their way to tape the show and not speak, they would instead focus on the changing floor numbers. Siskel would gleefully scoop Ebert on major interviews or pull pranks during airplane rides to bruise Ebert's titan ego. Yet a real, brotherly friendship ensued and the moments where Siskel's death from brain cancer are explored have the deep sadness inherent when a friend dies. Siskel's widow Marlene Siskel shares the moving insight that for her, Ebert's continued work as a critic meant for her that a little bit of Siskel remained alive.
"Life Itself" also chronicles an era in the history film. Ebert became a critic in 1967 when the golden age of 1970s grit and boldness was just around the corner. One of the first movies he reviewed was Arthur Penn's "Bonnie & Clyde." James includes quotes from Ebert's review, where he correctly identifies it as a key American film of the 1960s. This was an age when criticism was a respected form of intellectual journalism, and James brings back figures like Pauline Kael, who Ebert acknowledges as an influence (despite differences in opinion). And this is another key subject in "Life Itself," the evolution of film criticism from the print age to the digital age where quick digestion has replaced the long form, detailed review. Ebert never went against the tide, instead he adapted and his website remains a well-detailed resource on both new releases and general cinema scholarship.
James also sits down with major filmmakers to discuss Ebert's impact on their careers. Martin Scorsese and Errol Morris reminisce about how their early works were aided in their quest for audiences by Ebert's early, glowing reviews. Scorsese even appears close to tears when he recalls falling into a spiral of drugs and depression, until Ebert and Siskel helped pull him back into shape by inviting him to the Toronto Film Festival.
But the most memorable character in the documentary is Chaz Ebert. James does not shy his camera away from the breakdown of Ebert's body following cancer surgery and chemotherapy treatment. We see every, graphic detail of a man who cannot drink or eat, yet continues producing written work. Chaz is by him through every ordeal, every loss of temper, every moment when bad news is delivered. The lens takes such an intimate look inside their marriage that you are not likely to see a more memorable film romance this year.
If there is one key lesson from Ebert in this film it is the value of finding a real passion in one's life. For Ebert, as well as for this writer, movies were not simply entertainment, they were profound, moving, fun, revelatory experiences that opened windows into dreams and ideas. Ebert truly loved and cherished film, and "Life Itself" captures that aspect of the man with an elegant brush.
I have been reading Roger Ebert since the age of 13 and was swept up by this film's charm, heart, and profound sense of honesty. "Life Itself" is a life flashing before our eyes. It is a document and record, it is a collection of memories and a true cinematic biography. It is the life and trials of an important critic, and a great writer.