“Life itself” is the powerfully sad and inspirational documentary about film critic, Roger Ebert. Based on Ebert’s 2011 memoir of the same name, “Life Itself” is directed by Steve James with the cooperation and participation of Roger and Chaz Ebert. The film was begun five months prior to Ebert’s death from cancer of the thyroid and salivary glands (treatment for which left him unable to speak) in April 4, 2013, which means that the interviews with Ebert are done as he types his answers to James’ questions, making the documentary especially poignant.
What we learn about Roger Ebert is that he was first and foremost a journalist. While most of us know him from his groundbreaking TV show, “Sneak Previews,” or from his longtime career with the Chicago Sun-Times, we learn from the documentary that he always wanted a career in journalism, and was working for a newspaper at age 15. Surprisingly he never left his Illinois roots. Although he wanted to go to Yale, his family couldn’t afford it, so it was off to the University of Illinois where he became editor his college newspaper, the Daily Illini. After graduate school, he held a series of positions with the Chicago Sun-Times and in 1967 became the paper’s film critic and the youngest film critic in the country for a daily newspaper. Although other papers tried to lure him away, most especially the Washington Post, Ebert remained with the Sun-Times and in Chicago until his death. And that’s just for starters.
Even though “Life itself” is done with the cooperation of the Eberts, the film doesn’t feel like anything was held back. We definitely learn about Ebert’s achievements, of which there are many, including winning the first Pulitzer Prize for film criticism. But we also hear from Roger Ebert himself about his failings—alcoholism and living the high-life with women (before his marriage).
“Life itself” goes into great detail about Ebert’s relationship with fellow film critic and rival, Gene Siskel. Since neither man is still with us, hearing their point of views from their respective widows is as close as we’ll come to know what they really thought. To say theirs was a “love/hate” relationship is too simplistic. It’s pointed out that although Siskel knew what buttons to push, Ebert gave back as good as he got. “Life itself” does an excellent job in revealing just what the relationship was and how it evolved over the years.
At two hours in length, “Life itself’ is not a short documentary. But despite that amount of time and as forthcoming as the documentary is, “Life itself” doesn’t tell us how Ebert met Chaz. I’m not sure why, since so much time is spent on their marriage. However, because the film is full of so many other moments from Ebert’s life, these moments almost negate this one short-coming.
What “Life itself” does best is to share with us the love Roger Ebert felt for writing and for film. Writing was his passion and the fact that he continued to do so until the day before he died speaks volumes. For those who just know Roger Ebert for his “thumbs up/down” television reviews or for those who appreciated Ebert for his body of work, “Life itself” is a must-see.
“Life itself” is currently in theatres and available On Demand.