When the sad news arrived that film critic Roger Ebert has lost his very public battle with cancer in April 2013, social networking sites instantaneously transformed into public mourning places. Fond recollections of the 70-year-old Chicago Sun-Times journalist appeared everywhere, often accompanied with snippets from his approachable, passionate and incisive reviews. The following day, newspapers nationwide memorialized one of their own, a man, who especially in his final years, taught us much about living and dying with dignity.
"Life Itself," filmmaker Steve James' moving tribute to America's most popular film critic, serves as a poignant reminder of what a distinguished journalist and courageous man he was. It's the story of both his influential career -- which led to one of the most unlikely hit TV shows ever with co-host Gene Siskel -- along with his humbling determination to live life to its fullest even when cancer claimed his lower jaw,
Based on Ebert's same-titled, best-selling 2011 memoir, the documentary is full of intimate moments between Ebert and his wife, Chaz, during the final four months of his life and manages to celebrate its subject without turning him into a saint. Given how much we got to know Ebert through reviews, blog posts and interviews, most of "Life Itself" isn't exactly revelatory. What it does give us, however, is an intimate perspective of his relationships and fully recognizes how much influence he wielded.
James, a celebrated documentary filmmaker, knows from personal experience what Ebert's full-press support could do. When Ebert (and Siskel) gave his documentary "Hoop Dreams" a big thumbs up in 1994 before it even had a distributor, it became one of the most talked-about films of the year. And when "Dreams" wasn't nominated in the Best Documentary category, an outraged Ebert took on Oscar with those trademark sentences that had a Muhammad Ali punch
Fittingly, other filmmakers who benefitted from Ebert's praise are featured, along with fellow critics such as Time's Richard Corliss and New York Times' A.O. Scott. Gregory Nava ("El Norte"), Werner Herzog ("Grizzly Man") and Martin Scorsese (who also served as "Life Itself's" co- executive producer) recount what Ebert did for their careers. Scorsese's segments in particular stand out, especially his reaction to receiving a Ebert's thumbs-down review for "The Color of Money," the director's weak sequel to "The Hustler."
These candid insider accounts make "Life" pleasurable for any movie fan, but James's film is at its best when the focus turns on two of Ebert's longest partnerships, with his fellow critic and "Sneak Previews"/"At The Movies" co-host Siskel, and with his wife Chaz.
The rivalry between Siskel, the late Chicago Tribune film critic, and Ebert is legendary, and James goes behind-the-scenes to illustrate just how bitter it could get. One of the most revelatory moments shows Ebert and Siskel relentlessly sniping back and forth while shooting a promotion spot for their long-running TV show. But even though the competition grew fierce and made a potent combination on the Siskel & Ebert TV shows, something more was going on. And James, through interviews with the shows' producers and Siskel's wife, Marlene, reveal that at the root of this bitterness lay true affection. All of this will resonate with those of us who grew up watching Siskel & Ebert on TV.
But the greatest moments of "Life Itself" are when James turns to life itself between Roger and Chaz. The two met in an AA meeting, and their romance changed Roger for the better, friends said. The scenes in which Chaz and Roger navigate the last four months of his life, when Roger has lost his voice and his health suffers, will move you tremendously. It's a lovely portrait of two people in unconditional love.
How fitting then that, in the end, this personal story presents us with one of the best, most honest on-screen romances recently depicted on film. After watching "Life Itself," you get the sense it's that would make Roger Ebert most proud.
* * * ½
Director: Steve James
Running time: 1 hour, 58 minutes