It’s a little weird, reviewing a movie about one of the world’s greatest movie reviewers. “Life Itself”, a new documentary from acclaimed director Steve James, should be treated just as any other movie, but it isn’t, and therefore cannot be reviewed as such. The film details the life and career of film critic Roger Ebert, based on his memoir of the same name, and while it doesn’t break any boundaries in terms of format—and even though Ebert aficionados likely already know the stories contained within the film—it is a moving film from start to finish, as it examines what this man meant not just to the world of cinema, but to people everywhere.
Ebert wrote for the Chicago Sun-Times his entire career, being given the position of film critic while in his early twenties. While most criticism at the time analyzed films on a more symbolic level, Ebert simply looked at what made a movie good or bad, according to its genre. Ebert became the first film critic to win a Pulitzer Prize, and he took an even more simplified version of his written reviews to television on the show “At the Movies”.
This show—which ran under various names and on different networks for over twenty years—is probably the most memorable part of Ebert’s career, as the “thumbs up/thumbs down” review segments gave viewers a quick breakdown what was good and bad in theaters currently. But more importantly, it brought heated debate about films to television for the first time, as Ebert argued his opinions against cohost Gene Siskel. Much of “Life Itself” is devoted to this part of Ebert’s career, and much—maybe a little bit too much—is made of the intense love/hate relationship between Siskel and Ebert.
The career summary parts of this documentary aren’t what make it great, though. In fact, that aspect of this film is pretty typical, and doesn't offer up any information most of us watching this film didn't already know. It’s the parts that examine Ebert the man that are truly insightful. Throughout the film, Ebert is portrayed as a fighter. Early in life, he combated alcoholism, and won. In the early 2002 he was diagnosed with papillary thyroid cancer, and after several surgeries was left unable to speak. But that did not deter him—Ebert continued writing movie reviews, as well as Twitter and blog posts on a variety of subjects, so his voice never truly went away.
There are some vulnerable moments too. As this film began production toward the end of Ebert’s life, as he was in declining health, there is quite a bit of footage of him at the hospital, picturing him physically at his most vulnerable but mentally at his strongest. There are rare moments depicting his occasional frustration, but for every one of those there are also segments which look at young filmmakers Ebert inspired and supported early in their careers, even going so far as to attend the premiere of one young man’s feature. The admiration of the likes of Martin Scorsese and Werner Herzog is also recorded, as well as the remembrances of Ebert’s loving wife Chaz.
Roger Ebert was the movies. His love for film—and for life itself—was tangible in every word he wrote, and he inspired countless filmmakers and writers to do what they do. His passing was, in a way, the end of an era for film, but as this film shows he led a full life, and that’s all anyone could ever want.
Runtime: 120 minutes. Rated R for brief sexual images/nudity and language.