It's fairly simple, actually. Roger Ebert become the world's most famous and read film critic because he opened up a little piece of himself with each review. Sometimes it was a surprisingly personal detail, other times it might have been a small sliver of insight into a theme or idea brought up in a film that his life experience afforded him some alternate way of looking at. Most critics do this, by the way, but few do it with a true humanitarian's voice the way Ebert did. And what director Steve James' (HOOP DREAMS, THE INTERRUPTERS) loose adaptation of Ebert's memoir LIFE ITSELF does is capture the parts of the his life that infused both his world view and his writing.
Gracefully bouncing back and forth between what ended up being the final months of Ebert's life (he died on April 4, 2013) and more standard-issue biographical material, LIFE ITSELF moves briskly from Ebert's childhood in downstate Urbana to his time as editor of his college paper, to his earliest years at the Chicago Sun-Times, where he was assigned the job as film critic (he didn't ask for it). What's most telling about these brief sequences is that there are long-standing friends providing commentary at each stage. Ebert's life was full of such people, and the film makes it clear that once you were his friend, you were one for life.
James tells us right up front that his time filming and asking questions of Ebert (via email, primarily) was cut short by his unexpected death, so we know going in how this story ends. But it's clear from LIFE ITSELF that the journey is the most important part of the trip, not how you come into or go out of this world. It's impossible for me (and many critics) to come to this film impartial. There are just too many personal memories wrapped up in the material, once we move from Ebert's early newspaper days (including a Pulitzer Prize for film criticism) into the "Siskel & Ebert" years. To say that the pair were influential doesn't quite cover it; they had an impact on film, culture, television and generations of would-be critics, some of whom packed their bags when high school was done, moved to Chicago to be at the perceived center of the critical world, and never looked back.
The Siskel years are by far the most pure fun to relive and, in some cases, unveil. As in Ebert's life, a huge section of the film is devoted to his years with Gene, and for a time, James turns his attention squarely on the Chicago Tribune critic, who was Roger's primary nemesis in the early years of the show. Siskel's history is a bit of a mystery to me, so seeing him in photos cavorting with Hugh Hefner and his Playboy bunnies was a bit shocking. Some of the most revealing interviews about both Ebert and Siskel come from Siskel's wife Marlene Iglitzen, who has story after story of ways her husband undermined scoops Ebert felt sure he'd gotten over on Siskel. But there came a time when the two realized they would be lesser apart, and a caring friendship slowly formed, which doesn't mean they didn't relish in ripping into each other on the show or off.
The most revealing corners of Ebert's life come from a few of his old drinking buddies/writer friends, who were Ebert's constant after-hours companions at seedy bars around Chicago in the years before Roger joined AA and got sober in a hurry. But these old pals (many of whom have drinks in their hands in the film as well) tell us stories and tall tales of stupid bets and women of ill repute and passing out and fist fights that are the stuff legends are built upon.
The chapter in his life about meeting and marrying his wife Chaz is remarkable, because at that point in his life, he'd largely given up thinking he would ever find someone to live out his life with, let alone have to lean on when his health issues took over so much of his day-to-day existence. It's impossible to come out of LIFE ITSELF not wanting to hug Chaz, who is the one who learned to express emotions for both them when Roger was unable or unwilling. And she makes it clear that as tough as things got, it was a rich and fulfilling relationship until the end.
Chaz is largely shown in clips that were shot only about a year and a half ago, primarily in the Rehabilitation Institute of Chicago, and a little bit during a tough transition back home. It's clear that Roger was fully on board with the idea of this film and even suggests a few shots to James, but Chaz seems understandably less comfortable with the cameras around during some of the more routine or uncomfortable hospital moments. There's an unexpected tension in parts of the film that seasons the story and makes this intimate intrusion seem more immediate and raw.
LIFE ITSELF wouldn't be complete without scores of reviews—both written and televised—from Ebert. James has selected a few lines from key reviews (including the ones that earned Roger his Pulitzer) and uses clips from those films to illustrate the point being made in the review. He most importantly also includes testimonials from filmmakers whose careers and/or films were forever changed by an Ebert review, including the film's producer, Martin Scorsese, documentarian Errol Morris, director Werner Herzog, and indie filmmaker Ramin Bahraini. Ebert's value as a critic is evaluated by the likes of A.O. Scott, Richard Corliss, and even key detractors (at least of the popularization of film criticism that the TV show sparked) like Jonathan Rosenbaum, formerly of the Chicago Reader.
In the dozens of conversations and email exchanges I was lucky enough to have with Ebert over the years, we almost never talked about movies. He wanted to alert me to a great restaurant or book or any number of things that exist outside of the darkened theater we so often shared for roughly 13 years. He'd ask about mutual acquaintances, or just volunteer some fun detail about a trip he'd just taken. He lived as rich and fun a life as anyone I knew. Not long after he passed away, I wrote something about how it amazed me how much work the man did in a given week. His work ethic was as strong as his play ethic. And this film captures Ebert in both arenas, fueled by his boundless energy.
LIFE ITSELF stands up to repeat viewings quite well. There's an effortless flow that James and co-editor David E. Simpson make happen between the past and the near present. The home movies of the Eberts and their grandchildren vacationing in Europe and other exotic locales are probably going to be the thing that gets you truly emotional at first. But there is so much happiness and joy and humor in this film, it's tough to get genuinely sad or depressed even at the darkest moments.
For cinephiles, the movie is an expression of pure passion about the importance and power of the art form. For those who like a great love story, that's here too. But at its core, LIFE ITSELF is about kindness, goodness, enthusiasm, and embracing all the life has to offer. If you've made it this far in this review, then you've probably already decided you're going to see this film. If you haven't, enjoy living the rest of your life as someone who relishes missing opportunities.