This review was originally published on January 24, 2014…
It’s going to be nearly impossible for me, or really any film critic, to “fairly” critique Steve James’ newest documentary, “Life Itself.” That’s because the film is a documentary on the life of the most influential and well-known film critic of all time, Roger Ebert. I honestly cannot imagine that there’s a critic in the last 50 years that hasn’t been influenced in some way by Ebert, thus any review of the film is going to almost be a conflict of interest. Even if you dislike Ebert for whatever reason, this dislike will cloud your judgment of the film. Therefore all I can do is try and speak my piece on what I felt was a wonderful, inspiring, sad and also charming documentary about a guy who changed the course of my life by showing me film is something worth talking and writing about.
I grew up in Middle-of-Nowhere, California. As a child we had three TV channels: ABC, CBS and PBS. From an early age, I was a TV junkie, much like my father and his father before him, but my thing was always movies. Add to that “Star Wars” dropping when I was 7 years old, and I was immediately sucked into movies forevermore.
But back then there was no way to find out about movies; you took what you got on TV or at the local single screen. But Roger Ebert and Gene Siskel talked passionately about movies I had never heard of and it changed my life. It was like there was another world out there to aspire to, and those two guys influenced me as well as my career path. For that, I couldn’t be more thankful.
All that personal, mushy stuff out of the way, let’s talk about “Life Itself.” The doc is a very fine one indeed, if not a tad too long and a bit heavy as well. It follows the basic outline of Ebert’s memoir of the same name, but obviously, as cancer starts (and finishes) an all out war on Ebert, it’s up to filmmaker Steve James to finish Ebert’s story through this film. Which is fitting since Ebert gave so much to the medium and was an early champion of James’ “Hoop Dreams.”
Following the secretive death of Gene Siskel from brain cancer, Ebert vowed to never hide his illness from friends and the world as Siskel had done. In fact it seems Siskel’s death and insistence on no one knowing, not even Ebert until it was too late to say goodbye, changes Ebert’s life and sets the stage for the sad end which took him from us in 2013. Ebert never wanted to shy away from his illness and as such, James and his camera do not either. And like so many Americans, I have seen very little of death, disfigurement and the like, and it’s downright distressing. Most everyone knows Ebert lost his lower jaw to thyroid and other evil cancers, but we’ve really only seen the Esquire magazine cover which, although courageous, still looks like Ebert is smiling. But here, seeing Ebert missing his lower jaw is truly heart-breaking, and I realize the film isn’t a pity party, but it was still hard to see this man, who I had shared so much “time” with, wasting away, unable to talk or eat. Yet for all that pain and suffering, he never gave up his writing. That was always his voice and it was strangely fitting that it was his only way to communicate in his final days.
While I had a pretty firm grasp on Ebert’s life and work, I loved the way the film talked about how Ebert championed young filmmakers like Martin Scorsese, Ramin Bahrani and Ava DuVernay. Ebert truly used his power in good ways. The film also doesn’t shy away from the fact that Siskel and Ebert kind of damaged film criticism by making it an “all good” or “all bad” kind of argument, and therefore dumbed it down. I agree with this sentiment, and as a writer who tends to “go long” (as you are seeing now), it is a bit disheartening that they kind of shortened the discussion on film to fit a 30-minute TV show. But still, Ebert brought so much to film through his passion for the medium and gift of writing, it’s easier to look past the thumbs up or down phenomenon.
“Life Itself” is a wonderful remembrance of a man who helped push cinema back into the limelight at a time when no one was really talking about film. Both he and Siskel overcame personal conflicts and did things their way, and kept on doing it until they were taken from this world. But not only is “Life Itself” a fine remembrance of Roger Ebert, it’s also a good reminder to follow your dreams, love big and never give up. Good bye Roger, I miss you.