You're going to read a lot of reviews about the Roger Ebert documentary, Life Itself, and most of them will be very personal, more personal than reviews tend to be and for very good reason. To many of us, Roger Ebert was the patron saint of film criticism. He was the inspiration for doing what we do; helping to instill in us a love of movies that was evident every single time he wrote or spoke about cinema. And this was before the age of the Internet, a time when we got our news from *gasp* newspapers or on a handful of television channels. Ebert was a giant, and Life Itself is a giant of a film.
Steve James, whose incredible documentary Hoop Dreams was championed by Ebert, took on the project while Ebert was still very much an active presence. It would be some time later during production that Ebert's hard-fought battle with cancer would claim his life, just as it had claimed his power of speech some time back. But James does not make this a story about the man's passing, although we are taken through the heartbreaking ups 'n downs of his final weeks. This is a look back at the life of a man emboldened by an insatiable thirst for knowledge, and an undying gift for communication. Ebert made film criticism personable without speaking down to his audience; he respected them too much for that. It was an attitude he learned while fighting for that same respect in the pits of his college newspaper, the Fighting Illini, penning volatile, politically-charged editorials that stirred the mind. What shines through is his intelligence on any number of subjects, whether its politics, sports, and of course, film. Much of Ebert's story is told by the man himself, in his own voice before the cancer took his jaw. But James also dials up many of Ebert's old friends, who regale us with wild tales of women, arguments, bar-hopping, and the things that show us the Ebert beyond the bylines.
We also learn about his battle with alcohol, and how the influence of his true love Chaz Ebert saved him. Her presence is never too far away, and we see how they complement one another even as the film begins to take a heartbreaking turn. But James never allows things to wallow for long in sadness, delving into some of the comical areas of his life, including his writing of the B-movie Beyond the Valley of the Dolls. Legendary filmmakers Martin Scorsese, Werner Herzog, and Errol Morris all chime in with their stories about the man who fought for, and sometimes absolutely killed, their movies with just a few short words.
first time I saw Life Itself it was six months ago in Park City with a packed crowd of film critics, and while there were plenty of sniffles all around, the tears really began to flow when James turns to Ebert's relationship with Gene Siskel. From "Sneak Previews" to "At the Movies", what started as a contentious and overheated rivalry developed into a kinship of mutual respect and admiration. But boy did they go at it tooth-and-nail. They made movies fun, and with their famous thumbs they brought film criticism to the masses and into the digital age.
This could have been a real drag, but Life Itself is not about the tragedy of Ebert's passing. It's about the impact of a man lived a fulfilling life, and gave everything of himself to the profession and people he loved. Doubtful you will find a more moving, vital documentary than Life Itself this or any other year.