Life Itself, like the memoir it's based on, is a very personal and moving tribute to the beloved film critic Roger Ebert. Steve James, the director of Hoop Dreams (which happened to be one of Ebert's most championed films) pours his heart into this project, and Ebert would have been proud of the result, which gives audiences a complete portrait of America's most famous movie critic, and does so without descending into hagiography. For me it meant a lot to see the life of one of my own biggest influences celebrated in such a way, for as anyone who aspires to write about film would know, Ebert- both on television and especially later when he brought his voice almost entirely online- provided the framework and model for what the internet can be to a writer.
Steve James filmed his documentary at a time when Roger Ebert was in the last stages of his life, when he had been struggling with cancer that had destroyed his jaw and left him with no ability to speak. He'd been fighting this battle for the last 6 years and was likely approaching the end, as he even admits to in the film. Still, his own belief was in full disclosure, a principle he seemed to have embraced in light of Gene Siskel's death in 1999, when he had hidden the severity of his own illness from nearly everyone who knew him, including Ebert. The suddenness of Siskel's death from a brain tumor seemed to shake Roger to his core, and he vowed at the time that if anything similar ever happened to himself, he'd be open and honest about everything. Unfortunately it did happen, and not so many years later. Ebert allows the cameras to get up close and personal as we are let in on his struggle to rehabilitate after a recent hip injury, and his daily battles with the practices of simple tasks like eating and drinking. His devoted wife Chaz seems to be more uncomfortable with this kind of exposure than he is, and it may be a bit tough to watch at times, but you are never any less than admiring of his eternal bravery, even as he knows the end is near.
These hospital and rehab set sections of the film make up just a part of the documentary overall, as James goes back to the beginning to document Roger's upbringing and childhood, and goes on to relay how he got his start, almost accidentally, as the film critic for the Chicago Sun-Times. You get to know his personality, his politics, and his ideals through his own words from his autobiography and from interviews with his friends, colleagues and admirers. It doesn't shy away from personal demons like his alcoholism, or even the negative traits that plague just about everyone (Roger was often full of himself and argumentative, although regarding the latter, I mean, come on- he was a critic, after all). But some of the most interesting bits come from his relationship with Gene Siskel and how the two of them created the forum for movie criticism that pre-dated the future of film blogging and social media. When we hear from admirers and current critics who point directly to their influence it's hard to imagine any of the online world that exists today in that area without their contribution. Many of the tidbits about their famous and hilariously testy collaboration are probably well known to Ebert fans in general, but they do provide for some of the most entertaining segments in the documentary.
The other area the film serves to highlight is the depth to which Ebert as a critic encouraged new filmmakers and writers to pursue their own dreams, and the fame and influence that he had as a writer regarding the way people think about movies cannot be overstated. It's a real loss to the industry to lose such a figure who was able to champion lesser known films (the most important role a critic can serve, as Ratatouille spelled out for us) and who held the kind of megaphone that he held. His voice was a loud and powerful one, even when he lost the ability to project it, and it is very likely to be irreplaceable since his fame came in an era where there were far fewer critics and aggregation sites like Rotten Tomatoes were unimaginable. He encouraged discussion and argument from everyone (even his twitter followers) about movies because he loved them so much, and he had that kind of rare voice that was able to reach both the common moviegoer as well as the elite film snob. As a critic, his influence was deeply felt in his field, and as a man, his optimism, his intrepid determination in the face of his illness, and his willingness to embrace innovation and challenge his mind no matter how sick he got, will only make you admire him more. And even though he's physically gone, his words remain, his thousands of reviews there for anyone to discover, and in that fashion, his legacy lives on. Like the films he loved so much that keep stars and directors immortal in a certain kind of way, so too has his own voice cemented his status as such in the eyes of the millions of movie lovers he so inspired.
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