In 1994, Steve James directed a documentary calledHoop Dreams, which followed two young boys and their hopes to escape their gang-infested Chicago neighborhood through basketball. Today it is widely regarded as one of the greatest films—of any genre—ever made, a reputation it owes, in large part, to film critic Roger Ebert. Ebert championed the film from the beginning, calling it, “one of the best films about American life that I have ever seen”, and selecting it not only as the best film of that year, but of the entire decade. Now, twenty years later, James has a unique chance to return the favor, with Life Itself, an elegant documentary portrait of Ebert, a year after his death.
Life Itself is an adaptation of Ebert’s 2011 autobiography of the same name. The story of Ebert’s early life and career is told through passages lifted from the book, narrated by an Ebert impersonator, along with interviews with those who knew him best. The Roger we see in these sections of the film is a brilliant, arrogant, raucous force of nature. A polymath, and more prolific than any of his peers, Ebert had the great fortune to be assigned to the movie review section of theChicago Sun-Times at a time when movies themselves were transforming. The Hollywood studio system had collapsed, leaving the door open for a more visceral approach to filmmaking.
Ebert would play a large role in changing how people talked about movies—most famously through his syndicated movie review series, which Roger co-hosted with Gene Siskel of the Chicago Tribune. James controls the narrative of their relationship in a careful, even suspenseful way. The animosity between the two was genuine. Neither man had met an ego that could match their own, as shown through hilarious, sniping outtakes from their show. But the film also shows the development of a deep, brotherly love, formed from mutual respect.
In 2002, Ebert was diagnosed with thyroid cancer, and underwent the first of many surgeries. In 2006, another bout of cancer led to the removal of his jawbone. The operation left the skin of his lower jaw hanging loose, in a sort of permanent open grin, and took Ebert’s voice—but not his words. Instead of retreating into his illness, Ebert dove further into his work, shifting his focus to his website, continuing to post film reviews even in the final weeks of his life. The film shows this process, and his continuing passion for film. At all times, Ebert is either going to watch a movie, writing a movie review, talking about movies through a voice synthesizer, or continuing to promote and assist young filmmakers.
Much of Life Itself follows Ebert through his rehabilitation from a fractured hip, from the winter of 2012 into early 2013—what would turn out to be Ebert’s final days. One remarkable shot shows Ebert on a treadmill, framed at a low-angle against the Chicago skyline, the skin of his jaw drooping with each jagged step. In these moments the film becomes meditative, and we think far less about Roger Ebert the persona, and much more about Roger Ebert the human.
As its subject slips further away from life, the film changes again, from a portrait to a love story. Ebert’s wife Chaz is by him every painful, frustrated step of the way, and it’s through Chaz’s eyes that we experience Roger’s haunting, beautiful final moments on Earth. There aren’t many films that accurately depict the special kind of devotion it takes to shepherd a dying spouse through their final days, but Life Itself captures the sadness and peace of that experience.
Roger Ebert called movies an “empathy machine”, which allow us to see through the eyes of another, even if only for a few hours. It’s fitting, then, that his life has been documented in such a beautiful, empathetic film. Roger’s struggles become our own, as we kick against the strains of our private bonds toward our own loves and passions. But right to the end Roger retains his own wonderful sense of self as well: brilliant, caustic, and thoroughly, wonderfully, human.