A documentary about a film critic sounds like the height of perversity — could there be anything less cinematic than watching somebody watch movies? — but of course Roger Ebert wasn’t your average representative of the species. For mostly better and occasional worse, he was the most famous film critic in America, the man who with his TV partner Gene Siskel democratized the way people talk about movies, broadened the kind of movies we watch, and popularized a thumbs-up/thumbs-down approach to quality control that lives on via websites like Rotten Tomatoes.
But that isn’t the reason the gifted director Steve James (“Hoop Dreams”) decided to make “Life Itself,” or why his documentary is tremendously moving even if you haven’t been to the movies in years. As Ebert himself would appreciate, this is simply a great story — a cantankerous young newspaperman who became a passionate and tireless cheerleader for an art form, a lonely soul transformed by love late in life, a cancer victim whose sufferings seemed only to purify him.
Named for Ebert’s 2011 memoir, from which it quotes at length, “Life Itself” is a chronological biography that keeps looping back to the critic’s final months before his death, in April 2013. An unending series of surgeries has left him without a lower jawbone and the ability to speak; when the film opens, he’s heading back into the hospital after fracturing his hip. James dispassionately confronts his subject’s ravaged features and waits for us to get over the shock, which we quickly do. Ebert is adamant about that. “It would be a major lapse to have a documentary that doesn’t contain the full reality,” he writes the director in an e-mail. “I wouldn’t want to be associated. This is not only your film.”
“Life Itself” amasses a crowd of talking heads from all areas of Ebert’s life, from his childhood in Urbana, Ill., to his colleagues at the University of Illinois’ Daily Illini, to his drinking buddies at the Chicago Sun-Times, where Ebert landed a part-time job out of college and five months later was reviewing movies. (He won the Pulitzer Prize in 1975, the first film critic to do so.)
Ebert’s timing was lucky: It was 1967 and American film was making its great leap forward, with movies like “Bonnie and Clyde” and “2001: A Space Odyssey” leading the way and critics like Pauline Kael and Andrew Sarris setting the stakes. Ebert never belonged to the high-culture in-crowd, and that seemed fine by him: He was a born newspaperman and a natural writer whose tastes could be far outside the mainstream but whose attitude rarely was. The New York Times critic A. O. Scott praises the “clear, plain Midwestern newspaper style” of Ebert’s writing while filmmakers Werner Herzog, Errol Morris, and Martin Scorsese are on hand to testify to his crucial impact on their careers and even their lives.
There are some fine, funny stories here, including how Ebert came to write Russ Meyer’s demento 1970 classic “Beyond the Valley of the Dolls.” “Life Itself” avoids portraying its subject as a saint, though, and once the film gets into the years with Siskel and the stunning success of their TV review show — it had many names over the years, beginning with “Sneak Previews” -- his competitive nature emerges. “He’s a nice guy, but he’s not that nice,” an old friend comments, and even without Siskel’s widow, Marlene Iglitzen, describing the rivalry between the two, outtakes from the show reveal Siskel and Ebert sniping at each other with hilarious bitterness.
By the time of Siskel’s death, from brain cancer, in 1999, their bond had deepened and broadened, and Siskel served as best man when Ebert married Chaz Hammelsmith in 1992. As much as her husband is the soul of James’s documentary, Chaz is its heart, and the scenes of her managing Ebert’s life and health issues are a study in unassuming daily heroism.
Unable to speak except through a computerized voice, Ebert ironically became more loquacious than ever online, and his blog postings at RogerEbert .com took on an eloquence and wisdom that moved far beyond film to address, well, life itself. Ebert was kinder to movies than he had been before and too kind in some cases; some of his later reviews only seem naïve until you realize he’d simply ceased to find cynicism useful. There’s something in that for all of us (and critics in particular): an appreciation of life that extends to a grateful embrace of so much in it. Ebert once described the cinema as “a machine that generates empathy.” Watching James’s lovely film, you know exactly what he means.
“Life Itself” trailer: