Review: Roger Ebert- Life Itself (Sundance 2014)
PLOT:The life and times of famed film critic Roger Ebert, from his early days at the Chicago Sun-Times, to his fame on Siskel & Ebert, to his ultimate illness and passing.
REVIEW:Roger Ebert is a person that a lot of us in the online film critic community have a hard time being objective about. Throughout his career, Ebert has been a constant source of inspiration, no more so than in his last few years. Despite being silenced by his recurring bout with cancer, which resulted in the removal of his lower jaw, his blog was a constant beacon of hope. Speaking for myself, it's unlikely I would have ever become a critic if not for him.
It's fitting that LIFE ITSELF- the long-awaited documentary based on his best-selling autobiography- is directed by Steve James, a director whose docs (especially HOOP DREAMS) Ebert was particularly passionate about. Granted unfettered access by an ailing Ebert and his devoted wife Chaz, James was welcomed into the Ebert fold, and in the process was able to deliver an especially moving account of both his final days and his career in general.
Some of LIFE ITSELF is difficult to watch. Ebert was dead-set on depicting his battle with cancer in the most realistic way possible, and so we get deeply uncomfortable shots of the nurse cleaning out his air tube (while Ebert grimaces in pain) and his painful time in rehab, where his body is built up so that he can at least be somewhat mobile. Throughout it all, Ebert remains impossibly chipper, without an ounce of self pity.
While that affable, kind man was the Ebert most of us remember from either meeting him in person (which I was lucky enough to twice) or reading his blogs, James' film is quick to point out Ebert was not always that kind of guy. Call this a “warts and all” depiction of his life. His wild early days in Chicago are fully explored, with the revelation that Roger met Chaz in AA, with him having been a bad alcoholic throughout his early days as a critic.
The most fascinating part of the film is how his relationship with Gene Siskel evolved over the years. Both Roger and the late-Siskel's wife admit that the two fought like cats and dogs, with Ebert impetuously lording his Pulitzer Prize over Siskel, and threatening to quit the show any time his contract came up for renewal. The infamous outtakes from their TV shows, where Siskel bristles under Ebert's imperious direction are featured here. Still, it becomes apparent that despite their differences, the two men brought out the best in each other and that Ebert was never quite the same after Siskel's passing.
The way Ebert popularized film criticism, arguably paving the way for online critics, is also explored, although this is the one area the film could have been a little more in-depth about, as no one from any of the big sites are interviewed. The downside of Siskel & Ebert's success is also only lightly featured, although it's acknowledged that for a time they were the last word in film criticism in that a film could be ruined if it didn't get the “two thumbs up” seal of approval (much like the “fresh” seal on Rotten Tomatoes nowadays).
Even more than being about Ebert's undying love of film (with him being shown ploughing through screeners only months before his death), LIFE ITSELF is about his love for Chaz. Everyone admits that she made Ebert the kind, compassionate man we all remember, and Siskel's wife says that after they married he became an infinitely kinder person. The film goes through great pains to explore Ebert's devotion to both Chaz and his step-children and step-grand-children, but what's especially affecting is Chaz's undying devotion to her husband throughout his illness and now through his legacy.
In the end, I believe that had Ebert himself lived to see LIFE ITSELF premiere at Sundance, it would have easily gotten his thumbs up seal of approval. As one of the many critics Ebert inspired both through his life and work, it strikes me as a poignant, and fitting tribute to a kind and courageous man. If you've ever read his reviews, this is something you need to check out.