There is a beautiful symmetry to Steve James’s Roger Ebert documentary, Life Itself. From its recollections of Ebert’s fiery arguments with TV co-host Gene Siskel to the stark images of his final post-operative days when he could not speak or walk unassisted, the film overflows with humor and pathos and crankiness and ambition and a soaring belief in the transformative nature of art. It’s the whole package.
James takes Ebert’s 2011 memoir as his source document. From there we get Ebert’s memories of growing up as a precociously verbal only child in downstate Illinois. (“My mother supported me like I was the local sports team.”) He describes himself as not just a born writer but a born journalist. This was not a kid who wanted to just write for high-brow publications. He wanted to be read and heard by as many people as possible. Thus the career that arced from working-class daily paper to syndicated TV show and appearances on Carson and Letterman. When called upon he could pen a learned piece for Film Comment (as he did in response to a Richard Corliss piece that called him out as an egregious “thumbs up/thumbs down” simplifier and bottom-racer). But as much as he admired the Pauline Kaels and Andrew Sarrises of the world, that was never going to be him.
Like many other scrivening Midwestern kids, Ebert’s eyes were set on Chicago. In 1967, just after getting a gig at the Chicago Sun-Times, Ebert was thrown the job of film reviewer; he kept it until his death in 2013. He came of artistic age during the flowering of America’s avant-garde cinema and movie-brat directors. He was there to chronicle film’s morphing and fracturing into the micro-targeted and increasingly online specialty form of today. Along the way, he didn’t lose any of the giddy enthusiasm that propelled him to write about the films that truly moved him. James neatly threads some of Ebert’s crisp and thoughtful reviews through scenes from ground-breakers like Cries and Whispers and Bonnie and Clyde.
During his career, Ebert also reinvented and personified everyone’s idea of what popular film criticism could be. This story is told mostly through Ebert’s pals and co-workers. They’re a chatty band of Chicagoans who recall with equal joy and affectionate irritation how Ebert would hold court at their favorite watering hole during his boozing days (he quit drinking in the late 1970s). The picture that emerges is of a boisterous popular intellectual who loved a good fight and didn’t play fair. Ebert’s 1975 Pulitzer Prize was a heavy cudgel he loved to swing at any who dared disagree.
Although James is more interested in the man than his opinion, Ebert’s writing is presented as a critical ideal. New York Times critic A.O. Scott talks about Ebert’s combination of a “plainspoken Midwestern newspaperman’s voice” with prodigious critical intelligence. That style, both relatable and perceptive, was displayed through the years Ebert spent as co-host of Sneak Previews (later At the Movies). The battles with Siskel, a more cerebral type who pushed the older critic’s buttons like a bothersome brother, takes up the heart of Life Itself. It makes for a rollicking narrative, and one that allows the film to show an edgier and more vainglorious Ebert. James slips in some awesomely curse-laden outtakes, in which Ebert micromanages a frustrated Siskel.
In those pre-Internet days, even a comparatively low-rated show like Siskel and Ebert’s could serve as a mighty loud bullhorn. James himself knows this, as a Chicago filmmaker whose Hoop Dreams was pushed by the show. Other indie filmmakers championed by Ebert, like Gregory Nava (El Norte) and Errol Morris (Gates of Heaven), pay their respects. Werner Herzog, in typically dramatic Teutonic tones, pronounces the sickened Ebert “a soldier of cinema” wounded on the battlefield.
Although it would be easy to see these scenes as simply a kissing of the ring, they are some of the film’s most touching moments. Selma director Ava DuVernay notes her trepidation at sharing a very personal early film with a white male critic, but then jokes that since Ebert was married to a black woman he was “an honorary brother.” Martin Scorsese (who executive produced) first talks in cheerily mocking terms about Ebert’s one screenwriting effort (Russ Meyer’s exploitationer Beyond the Valley of the Dolls, represented here in a few gloriously ridiculous clips). But he segues into remembering an award Siskel and Ebert gave him during his drug and depression flameout that he credits with his artistic rebirth.
Bracketing the film’s recounting of Ebert’s professional ascendance is the time James spent at Ebert’s side with his wife Chaz Ebert during 2012 and 2013, the last stages of his life. By that point, Ebert’s many operations to remove cancerous tumors had already deprived him of the ability to eat, drink, walk, or speak for some years. These scenes are straight-on, showing Ebert’s silent face with the flap of skin dangling in front of the lower jaw he no longer had, as he types furiously on a laptop that generates a Stephen Hawking-like recorded voice. Ebert writes about how the deprivation of his voice pushed him into a new form of writing: “My blog became my voice.” His productivity exploded into social media, with blog posts sprawling over topics ranging from film to childhood reminiscences, politics, and philosophy. These scenes show not just the full, late flowering of a polymath but the mental flexing of a born optimist refusing to bow to the dictates of his body and working, working, working.
The film, like its subject, gives a thumbs-up to life, whatever shape it takes. It also stares full-on at life’s end, just like Ebert himself. He calls death “the third act,” insisting it is “an experience” he wouldn’t have wanted to miss. This is not a film to miss, either.