Life Itself Director: Steve James

Stars: Roger Ebert, Chaz Ebert, Gene Siskel, Martin Scorsese
Rated PG-13

One of the first images we see of Roger Ebert in the documentary Life Itself, based on the critic’s autobiography of the same name, is of a man ravaged by cancer, lower jawbone removed and currently bedridden from a fractured femur.

It’s hard to square this image with the version himself he projected online via social media and his blog. There, he still had the vital voice he had used for the previous half-century. It was a voice familiar to the movie going public; if anything, he was more focused than he had ever been. Trapped in a failing body, the written word was all he had left.

Life Itself opens with the quote from Ebert’s memoir,  “I was born inside the movie of my life… I don’t remember how I got into the movie, but it continues to entertain me.” Ebert’s life had all the ups and downs that a good story does, and the film doesn’t pull any punches — his alcoholism, his difficulty to work with and his battle with cancer are well documented here, but doing so paints a more complete view of the man. It shows the working-class background he carried with him throughout his career, the old-school newspaper culture he matured in and the way he got thrown into his life’s work of movie criticism because of a staff opening and a publisher’s whim.

Ebert’s success came largely from his writing style. The main reason he became arguably the best-known, most trusted American film critic is that he could write both entertainingly and knowingly about the subject. There were no dry, scholarly critiques in his column; he never spoke down to his readers like many of the professional critics of the day did.  This skill looks deceptively easy; in truth, it requires a rare type of talent — a talent he displayed early in his career as his college newspaper’s editor in the early 1960s and honed for the next several decades.

Life Itself also deals with the two great relationships in his life: his love/hate/respect relationship with fellow critic and “At the Movies” partner Gene Siskel and his later-in-life marriage to his wife, Chaz. Siskel, who died of a brain tumor in 1999, kept his condition a secret from almost everyone, including Ebert. Ebert was so stung that he never got to say goodbye to his friend, who died before he could visit, that he decided that, if he ever found himself in the same position, he would be very public about the fight. This was a promise he kept when he found himself facing cancer a few years later. The film shows the role Chaz played in his later life and work, providing him with the family he never had.

With any biographic documentary focusing on someone who has died, you can expect the film to end with the subject’s death, and Life Itself does indeed chronicle the whole of Ebert’s life, including his passing. Even knowing that he died in 2013 — the film starts off by saying that he passed away during the making of it — the end still comes as a gut punch, mostly because Ebert had become even more vital in his work as the end of his life approached. He still had things to say, and now the voice is stilled.

Random Observations:

• It’s worth noting that this film came out in very limited release (it didn’t play within 100 miles of my home), but it was also available as a Video On Demand download on the same day it was released. Ebert championed films on the national stage that would be available to a limited viewership. Life Itself notes that he reviewed the documentary Gates of Heaven on “At the Movies” not once but three separate times — the regular review, “overlooked treasures” and “best of year.” The film’s director, Errol Morris, credits that for allowing him to have a career.

• The film was directed by Steve James, who also directed one of Ebert’s favorite documentaries, Hoop Dreams. That film was also the beneficiary of Ebert’s praise.

• Ebert’s online presence, www.rogerebert.com, is still an ongoing concern, with reviews and stories posted by critics and reporters hand-picked by Roger and Chaz. Life Itself, by the way, got three and a half stars out of four, making it a “thumbs up,” if imperfect, pick.