This documentary by Steve James (Hoop Dreams) chronicles the life of Roger Ebert, the imminent film critic, who passed away in April of last year. It premiered at the Sundance Film Festival this year, and is a first in simultaneously streaming it online for contributors, following it with a Q&A afterwards on YouTube. The panel consisted of James and some of the other filmmakers; Chaz, Ebert’s wife; Bill Nack, Ebert’s long-time friend and colleague; and Marlene Iglitzen, the widow of Ebert’s long-time television partner, Gene Siskel.
Life Itself is based on Ebert’s autobiography of the same title. Hoop Dreams was a favorite of the film critic, and he and his wife Chaz cooperated fully with James in making the film and made sure their family and acquaintances would agree to be interviewed and to be candid in their remarks, including Marlene Iglitzen. Ebert and Siskel were long-time partners in reviewing movies on television. They were known as much for their sparring with one another almost as much as fine reviewing. Siskel died of a brain tumor in 1999, after which Ebert continued the TV show with Richard Roeper and other partners until bouts with cancer took away his voice and he was forced to continue his work by blogging on the internet. He managed to keep this up until the day before he died.
Life Itself focuses primarily on Ebert’s career as a Pulitzer Prize winning journalist (the first ever given to a film reviewer) and television star. He was held in high esteem by the movie-going public, as well as by filmmakers, stars, and other critics. And although he was respected from the time he began writing for newspapers as a kid (he published the Washington Street News as an elementary student, and later, at age 15, he worked full-time at the local newspaper), he also had a reputation for being, in his own words, “tactless, egotistical, merciless, and a showboat”, and rude to others who did not measure up to his standards. “But it worked”, says his long-time colleague, Bill Nack, “because he could back it up; he was a mature writer” even at that time. To his credit, across time Ebert evolved into a man who was personable, attentive to young filmmakers and critics, and much more gentle in his criticisms. He and Siskel eventually developed a deep friendship and brotherly love for one another, even while maintaining their fierce competition.
The documentary by Steve James is successful in coalescing so much information into a succinct, heartwarming story about an amazing man who evolved into someone who truly cared about accuracy in the news and the movie viewing audience in general. Life Itself will air on CNN after theatrical release, and includes statements by filmmakers Martin Scorsese, Werner Herzog, and Errol Morris, as well as critics A. O. Scott and Richard Corliss.
My favorite Ebert quote in the film is: “Movies are like a machine that generates empathy; it lets us understand a little bit more about different hopes, aspirations, dreams, and fears; it helps us identify with other people who are sharing this dream with us.”
By Donna R. Copeland