Without question, Roger Ebert is the most recognizable figure in American film criticism, possibly even international criticism, and deservingly so. Ebert helped curious minds alive today better understand movies and what they were trying to say, moving past the obvious and always finding something deeper. “Life Itself” is based on Ebert’s memoir of the same name, but the film goes far beyond the book’s last page. This documentary actually started shooting months before Ebert knew he was going to die, and the bulk of the focus is on his many relentless and rigorous battles to stay alive, as well as highs and lows in his life — there’s no soft-pedalling here. One very admirable trait about Ebert — when he learned he was going to die, and very soon, he wanted the show to go on.
Like the showboat he deservingly was, Ebert had acclaimed director Steve James (“Hoop Dreams,” “The Interrupters”) take charge and tell the story of his life, but with a bit of guidance from Ebert. James tells this unapologetic story with little sympathy, as per Ebert’s wishes, and a lot of passion — he wants the audience to really know who Roger Ebert was, and understand the importance of his work. The film’s highlights include a look at the enormous troubles Ebert had to overcome, mostly his fondness for booze and women, as well as the battle he faced every day until his last breath — the cancer that reduced him to a shadow of his former self, and eventually killed him.
A big nod goes to his devoted wife, Chaz, who has been his biggest cheerleader since the day they fell in love. Without her, Ebert freely admits he never could have faced his demons. As taxing as it is spending days with a loved one who is dying, Chaz never gave up on Roger and the film makes it clear she’s an important part of Ebert’s work. A large portion of the film takes place in the hospital during Ebert’s last act in life. James gets up close and personal, showing the audience how much Ebert smiled through his tough, final days and managed to still enjoy his life. It’s devastating and beautiful, sad and poetic, all at the same time, exactly what Ebert wanted.
Fans of Gene Siskel will be very pleased to see a healthy tribute to him in the film. Nothing is held back as the audience watches Siskel and Ebert fight, insult and laugh at each other as they talk about movies — passive aggressiveness was never a part of their language and they just went straight for the jugular. But it’s clear that they loved each other, but didn’t always know how to say it — too proud, perhaps.
If you’ve read Ebert’s book of the same title, you’ll appreciate how remarkably well James constructed the film. It’s impossible to discuss every detail of Ebert’s memoir, so James deliberately bounces around the book, letting the audience know what chapter is being dissected and where Roger was at in his life — even though some of the years are a bit out of order, it’s still a smooth transition. To help better understand Roger’s feelings, James provides voiceover quotes from the book, and then shows archived and new footage, or talking heads of the ones closest to him finish out the chapter.
There was a thunder in Ebert’s heart, and that was his love for movies, and he wanted to tell the world about films, both big ones and small. James should be high-fived every day of his life for telling the real story of Roger Ebert — a writer, a former alcoholic, a showboat, a hero, a lover, a man who changed from an uncouth kind of a dick to one who was unfailingly witty and kind. Last but certainly not least, Roger Ebert was a movie lover, and this is the kind of movie he would have loved.