Never before has a film so thoroughly captured the essence of life itself. Based on Roger Ebert’s memoir of the same name, this biographical documentary is directed by Steve James, a personal friend of Ebert’s. Well-researched and emotional, Life Itself brings to life the different chapters from Ebert’s autobiography, and captures the nature of who he was as an individual.
Ebert, who passed away in 2013, is among the most influential film critics of all time. He began writing at an early age; “I can write, I just always could,” he later said. He became a reporter, then the editor-in-chief of The Daily Illini during his time at the University of Illinois.
Later, he landed a job at the Chicago Sun-Times; when the paper’s longtime film critic retired, Ebert was given the job, and this became his entrance to the world of film criticism. He appeared with fellow critic Gene Siskel on the television programs Sneak Preview and At the Movies, and near the end of his life became an avid blogger.
Ebert had a way with words that, coupled with his extensive knowledge of films, allowed him to see the details of films and the intentions of their directors. He also had a heart that seemed to accept everything, including life as it is. The film’s footage from Ebert’s 2013 hospital stay showed how, despite losing his lower jaw to cancer, he maintained a positive outlook.
The film spends much of its running time on Ebert’s love-hate relationship with Gene Siskel. The two were polar opposites of each other; Ebert was a control freak, and the disorganized Siskel was his source of madness.
Siskel also knew how to push his buttons, and their arguments were well-known among their friends to go on behind the cameras. For example, the order for their names on the show — Siskel and Ebert or Ebert and Siskel — was decided by the flip of a coin, a common compromise between the two.
However, they eventually grew to respect each other. The day Siskel died, Ebert spent the day tweeting shared memories between the two. “I’ve never felt closer to a man,” he said. His relationship with his wife, Chaz, is also a prominent aspect of the film. “Chaz really liked him for who he is, not what he is,” says Siskel’s wife. “[Meeting Chaz] was life-altering for Roger; she changed his life and his personality dramatically.”
Ebert is portrayed in the film as intelligent and talented, but also a flawed human being. As one interviewee says, he was nice, “but not that nice.” He was known for socializing with the artists he criticized, and this behaviour elicited controversy for how it might influence his reviews.
Ultimately, the film maintains that Ebert was able to balance his professional and personal relationships, without challenging his writing.
The films depicts Ebert, with all his passion and dedication, trudging on despite the physical limitations caused by his cancer; it’s an inspiring portrait of courage. “People are interested in what you have to say, not how you say it,” Chaz tells him.
The documentary is well put-together, and does, in essence, capture life itself. While it is about Roger Ebert, Life Itself also reflects the conditions of life in general — what it means to live, to have lived, to die, and to be remembered.
Near his death, Ebert posted a blog entry titled “A Leave of Presence,” and the movie ends with this quote from the entry: “on this day of reflection I say again, thank you for going on this journey with me. I’ll see you at the movies.”
Life Itself is available on Video On Demand and iTunes on February 3, and on DVD and Blu-ray February 17. For more information, visit ebertmovie.com.