Writing a film review is a tenuous proposition. A review is merely the formalization of an opinion, and so it can be difficult to assess its value. When writing a review, one must hurdle over readers’ suspicion and mistrust, and convince them that what you have to say about a film matters. There’s a large misconception that film criticism is merely a forum for reviewers to scrutinize the creative work of others. While this is an accusation that many, if not all reviewers of guilty of (I certainly am), the distillation of a film’s merits into a number, or a thumbs up, is rarely the primary objective of any reputable critic. Film criticism is meant to enlighten, inspire, and spread understanding and love of cinema. It’s a difficult and oft maligned profession, and if there’s one man who proved that it is a profession that can be elevated to the level of art, that man is Roger Ebert.
Life Itself could have been a great many things: a tribute, a biography, and indictment. Thankfully, Oscar-nominated director Steve James (Hoop Dreams) is not content with creating a film that can be summarized in one word. The film opens on the final months of Ebert’s life as he struggles to rally after another blow in his fight against cancer. These final weeks serve as a heartbreaking anchor for the film. James intercuts archival footage and talking heads with these segments of direct cinema, constantly reminding us where this incredible life is heading. It’s an emotionally effective structure for the film, but whereas a lesser film would employ it to elicit pity for its subject, James employs it to exhibit his subject’s strength.
James’s presence is immediately apparent; he asks Roger questions directly and even films himself in the mirror at Ebert’s request. This has an immensely humanizing effect on the film. The endeavor feels less like a public tribute, and more like an intimate remembering of a man by people who knew him. The majority of the film is a kinetic blend of archival footage, photos, interviews, and voice over, some from Ebert’s autobiography and some from the emails exchanged between Ebert and James. Many notable film critics appear in the film as well as several filmmakers with whom he was close, including Werner Herzog and Martin Scorsese (who serves as the film’s executive producer).
When a film is made by friends and family, it is easy to slip into deification. While Life Itself is never ungenerous with Ebert, there’s a notable lack of rosy tint to the glasses with which it views the man. James never feels as if he’s constructing a face of Ebert that you cannot help but love. The film shows us Ebert the journalist, Ebert the critic, and Ebert the scholar, but also Ebert the child, and Ebert the megalomaniac. He was a man who was a champion for film and film criticism, and also a man who, on at least one occasion, stole a cab from Gene Siskel’s pregnant wife. To glorify is to strip the humanity from, and while Life Itself focuses on Ebert’s life as a critic, it never loses site of him as a man.
Life Itself is as much a love story as it is a retrospective of Ebert’s life. His wife Chaz is a constant presence throughout the film, particularly in the segments that chronicle the final weeks of his life. We see the profound strength of their relationship as Ebert spirals into weaker and weaker health and Chaz is forced to face increasingly bleak odds. Halfway through the film, Ebert sits Steve James down and admits that he will likely be dead by the time the film is finished. Watching through James’s camera, it’s a devastating moment that doesn’t feel trespassed upon, but rather invited. It’s a difficult moment that changes what the film is about. What started out as a film about Roger Ebert’s life up until a debilitating illness, became a film about his life, full stop. To have a film straddle the chasm of a subject’s death is a difficult thing to do, but here it’s handled with incredible poise and grace.
Verdict: 5 out of 5
The final years of Roger Ebert’s life were also some of his most prolific. Robbed of his voice, he spoke through his writing, often on his blog. Ebert’s final blog post, published two days before his death, is entitled “A Leave of Presence.” In the post, he writes: “What in the world is a leave of presence? It means I am not going away.” Whatever his intention, the words are certainly true. In Life Itself, there is a scene where passersby stop and take photographs outside the Chicago Theatre on the day Chaz Ebert held a memorial event called “Roger Ebert: A Celebration of Life.” While treating a memorial event as an impromptu tourist attraction could be seen as an exercise in bad taste, to view it that way would be to miss the point.
Roger Ebert became famous in an industry that does not breed fame. There is only one household name in film criticism, and that name is Roger Ebert. This is not an accident, as the film so eloquently shows; it’s a testament to Ebert’s talent and importance. Roger Ebert described the movies as a machine that generates empathy. Well, Steve James has created one well-oiled machine.