Roger Ebert considered himself first and foremost a journalist. It could even be argued that the secret to his success during a lifetime career at the Chicago Sun-Times was his preeminent newspaperman calling card—one that forced him to never address any sentence or prose with the pretensions of the New York cinephile elite or the high-mindedness of other contemporaries. His literary approachability is why he could so self-assuredly dominate the conversation with a high-mindedness that was all his own.
This is certainly one of the many points suggested, underlined, and persuasively repeated time and again throughout Life Itself, Steve James’ new afterhours eulogy and raised glass to the most important writer in the history of film criticism.
James, once the director who Ebert described as having delivered “one of the great moviegoing experiences of my lifetime” with 1994’s documentary Hoop Dreams, turns his lens on that critic’s lifetime, which while famously filled with his favorite filmmakers was also a step apart. In contrast to his intimate writing style, which his wife Chaz Ebert describes as “man goes to movie, and I am that man,” Ebert’s life remained less known to his readership until the 2011 publication of his memoir of the same name, Life Itself.
Like that book, James provides an earnest (and mostly affectionate) look at Ebert’s life. The filmmaker has repeatedly stated that he makes documentaries with his subjects and not about them, and the brief four-plus months he had with Roger before his passing, and the complete openness he had from Chaz Ebert, comes shining throughout the picture.
However, James’ easiness with them allows the filmmaker to explore some of Ebert’s less celebrated features that other documentaries might gloss over. The movie makes no bones about Ebert’s early drinking problems or how inherently linked they were to his journalist days when he worked his way up from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign school paper to the workingman’s Chicago Sun-Times. Indeed, the straightforwardness of a career for that publication—with its original aim for the op-ed board—likely explains why Ebert was able to thrive as the first real film critic to reach a wider audience by espousing the significance of cinema without the expected pomposity inherent with such assertions. Still, it could lead to other airs, such as hitting the Chicago newspaper bars too heavily every night or mentioning that Pulitzer Prize (a first for a film critic) a bit too often.
But James’ endearing exploration of this lifetime of contradictions about the critic who believes in the democratization of film, while still elevating his own paid opinion above all others, is what makes Ebert and Life Itself so enjoyable to be around. And with voice actor Stephen Stanton impressively evoking the tenor of Roger Ebert’s voice when reading excerpts from the memoir Life Itself (which was written after Ebert lost the ability to speak), only the most antagonistic audience member will be able to deny that inflection’s indomitable worldview.
The portion of the movie that will likely interest and amuse the most viewers is of course the rise of “Siskel and Ebert at the Movies.” The film is full of anecdotes that will bring smiles to those old enough to remember their warring—or who have seen the legendary B-roll footage of the pair arguing on YouTube. The picture predictably tracks the genesis of the Two Thumbs that bedeviled serious critics like Pauline Kael and Richard Corliss so thoroughly. Indeed, those age-old conflicts about the limitations of bite-sized syndicated reviews, as well as New York versus Chicago (and the world), are all firmly revisited. But the real delight from this portion of the movie lies in the perspective of those on the sidelines who give a special insight into how Siskel and Ebert’s tenuous relationship grew. In addition to Chaz Ebert, who came into Roger’s life during this period, Gene Siskel’s wife Marlene Iglitzen also gives honest testimonial about the two husbands’ slowly built friendship, including a beautifully mean prank that Siskel played on Ebert’s Pulitzer-sized ego.
The movie also tracks Siskel’s private decline almost as thoroughly as Ebert’s very public one.
Since the film’s production began less than six months before the end of Roger’s life, much of the film is wrapped around that tragic difficulty and its many hardships. There is a harrowing cinéma vérité quality to these scenes that is more in keeping with James’ earlier, harder hitting documentaries. With most of his jaw gone due to complications from Thyroid Cancer, the camera plays witness to Ebert’s rituals in the hospital or on a trip home with Chaz. And as an image that Roger strongly believed should be in the film, even telling James as much via email and electronic voice communication, it displays a sincere amount of bravery on the part of both spouses. Yet, with such limited time with Roger, it feels especially painful that so much of the film is dominated by the ailments and suffering of his last days, which ultimately monopolize a movie that intends to be about more than an ending.
Still, the movie stands tallest for its more commiserative objectives and affections when it looks back both on Ebert’s life and his influence on other people. Filmmakers he championed early in their youth of course make appearances now like Martin Scorsese (who served as executive producer on the movie) and Werner Herzog. Scorsese is especially enjoyable not only for recalling the importance Ebert played in supporting his career, but in reflecting on Roger’s first harshly negative review of one of the director’s efforts in The Color of Money. The importance of Ebert’s influence and voice in criticism beyond the thumb is most evident in Marty’s memories, stating that Ebert was never mean or unthinkingly cruel. There was a charitableness and insightfulness to his criticisms that some writers might find scornful, but millions of readers and even filmmakers could view as illuminating.
Roger Ebert was often fond of saying that “it is not what a movie is about, but how it is about it.” This saying could define Life Itself too. While the movie lacks the bluntness of James’ earlier work, including Hoop Dreams, there is a warmth to it that never feels selective or fawning; it’s celebratory for a life lived that gave so much to film and the writing about it. For those who value that, on both sides of the movie screen, it is nothing short of a delight.