‘Life Itself’ (2014) Movie Review

Life Itself movie review
Photo: Magnolia Pictures

In the last decade of his life, Roger Ebert took to the Internet without looking back. While cancer of the thyroid and salivary glands would eventually mean Ebert could no longer share his thoughts with the world with his voice, the Internet gave him an outlet, opening his life even further to fans of the late, Pulitzer Prize-winning film critic as never before. I didn’t personally read every word Ebert wrote on his blog or on Twitter, but I read a lot of it and can even say I had the pleasure of meeting him upon my first visit to the Cannes Film Festival in 2010, corresponded over email a couple times and he even took to batting a few comments back and forth on this very site in December 2008.

All things considered, a lot of what is presented within Steve James‘ loving documentary Life Itself, titled after Ebert’s 2011 memoir of the same name, doesn’t come as a surprise. However, to hear the story of Ebert told by those that knew him best is a completely different experience. Ebert made no secret of his demons, such as his battle with alcohol at an early age, and it’s that honesty in terms of who he was that not only made his writing more powerful, but his relationships were made equally powerful as a result.

Just as he responded to my emails and would read and reply to those that commented on his blog posts and on Twitter, his respect for his readers and, as this documentary points out, burgeoning filmmakers, brought us closer to his world, all, primarily, over a shared love for the movies.

James, in collaboration with Roger and his wife Chaz Ebert, took to beginning work on this documentary five months before Ebert eventually passed away on April 4, 2013 at the age of 70. We’re invited into the hospital room, invited to endure the tears, the joking and the last days of Roger’s life shared with friends, family and colleagues where his importance to them all (and vice versa) is fully realized.

Ebert’s early days as a journalist are explored until he is handed the film critic position. His work on Beyond the Valley of the Dolls is included, footage from his wedding and plenty of coverage of his work alongside Gene Siskel with a major contribution from Siskel’s wife Marlene Iglitzen.

Filmmakers including Martin Scorsese, Werner Herzog, Ramin Bahrani (Man Push Cart), Ava DuVernay (Middle of Nowhere) and Errol Morris (Gates of Heaven) speak of the effect Ebert had on their careers, either by simply giving their films a chance, seeing greatness in the early stages of their careers when others may have overlooked them entirely.

Other contributions come from film journalists including A.O. Scott of the “New York Times”, Jonathan Rosenbaum and TIME Magazine’s Richard Corliss who wrote “All Thumbs: Or, Is There a Future for Film Criticism?” in 1990, attacking the film criticism culture Siskel and Ebert had created with their show “At the Movies”, a piece Corliss laughs at now, though he brings up a debate that still reigns today thanks to the likes of websites such as RottenTomatoes.com.

In short, Life Itself largely deals with bullet points in the life of Ebert, and doesn’t necessarily feel entirely in-depth. This isn’t a bad thing, it just makes it more of a feature length “In Memoriam” than anything else. It never feels particularly hard-hitting as much as it makes you want to rush out and pick up Ebert’s memoir as several passages from the book are read throughout the documentary. This, perhaps, is the greatest point the film can make.

Ebert made you want to explore further. As much as you might disagree with his opinion on film he challenged the way you thought and approached your opinion. His writing taught me it isn’t only about having an opinion, it’s about explaining that opinion and what readers will most appreciate is honesty, thoughtfulness and if you’ve managed to get your point across, passionate debates will follow.

It’s impossible for me to approach this documentary in any other way than to say even though I only met the man once and he was only able to share a few hand gestures with me because by that time he’d already lost the ability to speak, I felt like I knew him on some level. I know I’m not alone among the critical ranks and I know I’m note even a blip on the radar when it comes to the legacy he left behind, but the fact he was able to make me feel that way I think speaks to his power as a writer and as a person. So as much as this documentary may be an “In Memoriam” to Ebert, I guess my review of it is as well.

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