It’s a daunting task to review a film about the most famous film critic on Earth. My prose will be lackluster compared to his. My insights won’t rival his ability to eloquently dissect a film into its many working parts. So, how do I complete this thankless task? The answer is simple. My goal is not to review the life or talent of Roger Ebert, but rather the excellent documentary about him, Life Itself, that is currently playing in theaters while being simultaneously available from various Video On Demand (VOD) outlets.
Based on his memoir of the same name, Life Itself shows us a driven young man who was the editor of his college student newspaper and accepted a position as the film critic for the Chicago Sun-Times because that was the only job available when he applied with the newspaper. Through dozens of interviews, behind-the-scenes television footage and unfettered access to an archive of family photos, we see Roger Ebert rise from novice critic to Pulitzer Prize winner to an international television star who made frequent appearances on talk shows around the world.
There’s always a concern that a documentary made with the full cooperation of its subject might turn into a “puff piece” or deification of the person whose life is being examined. Instead, director Steve James (Hoop Dreams) provides a balanced look at Ebert the man. The film critic’s struggle with alcoholism, his recovery, and his petulant on-set behavior with his television co-host, Gene Siskel, are all on display. Any desire to paint the talented film critic as a saint or whitewash his past has wisely been ignored.
Life Itself is a look at the world of Old School newspaper journalism, the joys of cinema, passion for the arts and the ambitions of a man with a gift for writing. But, unexpectedly, Life Itself is a moving account of Roger Ebert’s final chapter, his death from complications with thyroid cancer. Ebert’s wife, Chaz, makes it clear that she did not want cameras in her husband’s hospital room. But, Ebert insisted that a documentary on his life that did not chronicle his years of medical struggle would be dishonest. In short, it would be a film that Ebert himself would have no interest in watching. For him the epilogue is every bit as important as the prologue.
At a full two hours, Life Itself can be a bit repetitive. For each point Steve James makes about Ebert’s life, we get two, three or four interview subjects commenting on it throughout its 120-minute running time. Corroborating facts is especially valuable when it comes to controversial allegations. Multiple viewpoints provide objectivity and balance, but they can also belabor the presentation of basic events and facts that no one would dispute. Life Itself feels like it was edited by committee, and each person wanted their favorite moments in the final cut. It’s truly a minor quibble, but the film would be even stronger if it were trimmed by about fifteen minutes.
Throughout his life, Ebert educated the public about the history of cinema. He was an ardent supporter of indie films, documentaries, foreign films and student filmmakers. He was America’s best-known ambassador to Hollywood and the art of filmmaking. He spent his life teaching audiences about the importance of what they were seeing in theaters across this country. It’s only fitting that a film about his death continues to teach us about life.
The Movie Isle
Scott Phillips holds a degree in print journalism from the University of Georgia and is currently a member of the Georgia Film Critics Association (GAFCA). In addition to his role as a correspondent for Timed Edition, Scott serves as the Executive Editor and Senior Writer for themovieisle.com. From 2013 through 2017, he reviewed films for filmdispenser.com. Along with his duties as a critic, Scott serves as the Content Programmer for the Way Down Film Festival held in Columbus, Georgia every fall.