In a cinematic irony that its subject would surely appreciate, the documentary Life Itself is dominated by the specter of death. Sure, the film does its duty in tracing the life of film critic Roger Ebert, who is arguably the most famous person ever to hold that job title–only his old on air partner Gene Siskel provides formidable competition–but it is the well-viewed Chicagoan’s final years, wracked by illness and debilitating complications related to the treatment, that carry the main weight. As Ebert acknowledges in an exchange with the film’s director, Steve James, the long, agonizing encroachment of mortality provides a more poignant storytelling close anyway. To the end, Ebert was considering the relative value of the narrative.
There aren’t many other people who devoted their professional lives to writing about movies who’d actually merit having the camera turned back on them, but James makes a persuasive case for Ebert to receive such a focus. Drawing the title and at least some of the inspiration for the film from Ebert’s memoir, James and his collaborators lightly trace the critic’s earliest days–with his family, local newspapers, and college journalism–before reaching the point when things really rev up: Ebert’s arrival at the Chicago Sun-Times and ascendancy within mere months to become the paper’s film critic. Ebert goes on to become the first film critic to win the Pulitzer Prize (for many years, he was the only film critic to have ever received the honor), to write the script for the Russ Meyers film Beyond the Valley of the Dolls, and to engage in the sort of booze-tinged, ramshackle, intellectually rambunctious lifestyle that once defined the denizens of the newspaper business, especially in a bruised knuckle town like Chicago. And that was all before he was paired with his chief municipal rival on a PBS program devoted to reviewing the latest movies.
Across the aisle from Gene Siskel (of the Chicago Tribune) on Sneak Previews, then At the Movies, then Siskel & Ebert & the Movies, Ebert found fame that rivaled that of the stars he interviewed and influence on the moviegoing community that exceeded most critics’ ego-driven dreams. If the duo proclaimed “Two thumbs up” in their assessment of a film, it was guaranteed to show up on ads and posters. (In a cheeky touch, James shows it emblazoned across subpar fare like Look Who’s Talking and Speed 2.) Even better, their verbal sparring made for great television. James unearths a personal favorite of mine involving their heated disagreement about Stanley Kubrick’s Full Metal Jacket that spills over into a similar split decision on Benji the Hunted later the same episode. I remember watching this when it aired, and it’s far more engaging than either of the films in question. Understandably, James focuses on this stretch of Ebert’s career with great glee, deploying a bevy of wonderfully chosen clips, including segments from a fascinating episode of Sneak Previews in which the critics lay out their working rituals and a cluster of outtakes from the recording of promos which find them viciously feuding (when not memorably decrying the national influence of the “goddamn Protestants”). The years with Siskel may not represent the most profound part of Ebert’s story, but they surely provide the most terrifically fun material.
It’s that partnership with Siskel that sets up the unyielding bravery Ebert showed in sharing his deteriorating state with the world, including memorable photos that showed exactly what he looked like after cancer and the complications from its treatment necessitated the removal of his lower jaw. Siskel died in the late nineties, after a battle with brain cancer that he largely kept secret. That inspired Ebert to swear he would never similarly hide whatever problems he had, and his very public presentation of who he’d become physically was inspiring. When fate gave him every reason to turn away from the spotlight, he put himself out there, an engagement that continues with the film in shots of him struggling with his physical therapy or wincing in obvious agony as a suction treatment is administered to his exposed throat. James captures it all, as unflinching as the man he films.
If anything, Life Itself sometimes struggles to contain all the material that Ebert’s life offers. Willing as James is to illuminate the less pleasant parts of Ebert’s personality or the conflicted feelings others have about his approach to his job, there are times when the most complicated issues are zipped past a hair too tidily. For example, Ebert eventually became close with several of the filmmakers whose work he was supposed to bring an unbiased eye to assessing, and his familiarity with them as people seemingly softened his critical view, a potential problem James tosses away with a clip of Ebert (along with Siskel) offering a unfavorable (and, it’s worth noting, pretty spot on) evaluation of Martin Scorsese’s The Color of Money shortly after they’d championed him at a Toronto International Film Festival showcase that the director himself tearfully notes revived his flagging spirits during his mid-eighties career nadir. That’s compelling in a way, but there plentiful unmentioned counterexamples of Ebert putting that thumb way up for bad, or at least highly questionable, movies directed by his friends. This seems like a good place to quietly cite his four-star review of Werner Herzog’s Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call, New Orleans and move on.
Similarly, James spends a significant amount of time on Ebert’s generous championing of young filmmakers, an advocacy that could truly make a difference for up-and-coming creators. Given that, it’s a misstep that James, who’s very present throughout the film, makes no mention of Hoop Dreams, his exemplary 1994 documentary for which Siskel and Ebert were instrumental in garnering greater attention. James may be determined in the honesty of his depiction, but his connection to his subject is stronger than he openly acknowledges. It’s a minor sin of omission, but a sin nonetheless. It’s one that, I’d like to think, Ebert would have caught had he the chance to review the film.