Steve James’ beautiful, commemorative documentary, Life Itself, documenting the life and career film critic Roger Ebert, is a wonderfully surreal experience. Though perhaps a little soft around the edges, the film still perfectly captures who Ebert was as both a figure in film history and mostly who he was as a person. What little it lacks in personal insight is more than made up for in poignant, nuanced observation about cinema and storytelling in and of itself.
It is impossible to write this review without being struck by both a sense of irony and a sense of definitive appropriateness. To critique this film is to emulate, and in many ways flat-out mimic, it’s subject, which makes the entire process difficult to manage without feeling pretentious or self-serious. Many times throughout Life Itself excerpts from Ebert’s work are read aloud for the audience, effectively illuminating the nigh unmatched skill he possessed when a pen (or keyboard) was in hand. His absolute fluidity and consistency and ability make an absolute mockery of my stumbling around here on this keyboard trying to sound appropriately critical and intelligent. It’s a hard, hard film to review, but try I must.
It’s rather hard to tell if Life Itself was as effective as I felt it was, largely because Roger Ebert was, and is, a major influence on how I write and critique. In some of my earliest reviews during high-school I would regularly pull up Roger’s section of the Chicago Sun-Times, read his material and try desperately to recreate the casual ease with which he wrote on my own page. So my personal investment in the life of this man, as I’m sure most film critics can attest to, is higher than the average viewer. That being said, there’s a unique tangibility to Ebert as a man in this film, as it opens and closes with footage of the closing days of his life. This tangibility provides an immediacy and empathy with the subject that most documentaries can’t manage.
Life Itself is, first and foremost, a celebration of Ebert’s life. Which, while appropriate in light of his passing, does occasionally cut corners on complete honesty for the sake of maintaining certain sentimentalities. There are instances where the film suffers from this, of only in minor ways, as it spends less time rebuffing Ebert’s critics than it probably should, providing only surface-level counter-arguments and going along it’s merry way. There’s an inherent folly to only flirting with a subject that deserves full attention to be dealt with properly, and Life Itself, while thorough in most every way, feels like it’s skimping in these areas and glossing over any potentially legitimate criticisms of Ebert’s approach.
The other area this effects is cutting out elements of Ebert’s life that would muddy the emotional waters, his working relationship with Richard Roeper, his co-host of eight years, is left entirely unaddressed, never even being mentioned by name in the film. This absence, to anyone with even a basic knowledge of Ebert’s career, is a glaring one, and ultimately hurts the film by curbing it’s honesty.
But the places where Life Itself succeeds far out weight the areas where it doesn’t. Where it stumbles as an impartial documentary, it triumphs as a respectful, loving dedication to Roger Ebert’s life. It functions as an affectionate final farewell for those who knew him and, especially those who didn’t know him directly. His fans; the young, budding writers who he influenced and motivated for decades are given a deeply personal look into the life of a champion of cinema.
And though it may turn something of a blind eye towards some areas of Ebert’s life, it’s surprisingly overt in its portrayal of the ugliness and pain of his final stretch. We see Ebert in pain, both physical and psychological, as he struggles to walk, is unable to speak, and endures day to day life being hooked up to tubes, all the while fighting to retain dignity and spirit as a person. The juxtaposition between the Ebert that we see in these scenes and the healthy, passionate, assertive Ebert we see in archival footage is a powerful one. The effect of these struggles on his family is evident as well. The footage of Roger’s wife, Chaz, fighting to retain her hope for both herself and her husband is some of the most powerfully, emotionally raw film I have ever seen onscreen. Life Itself is a thorough exploration of life itself, and Steve James’ exploration is unflinching when looking upon the hardest of human struggles.
Even in the dark moments, however, the light shines through. The power and beauty of Ebert and Chaz’s spirit, as well as those around them leaves a much stronger and more lasting impression than the hardship and pain they share. Even though the final years of Ebert’s life were spent in suffering of various kinds, his story is still a story a triumph through to the very end. Life Itself is a fitting testimonial to that story, and is the film that Ebert deserved for himself and those who loved him, from close or afar.