There are a few professions you get into without expecting much love. One is a journalist. Another is the critic. So how exactly was Roger Ebert, who was both, so universally beloved?
The documentary “Life Itself” will explain why. It tells the story of Ebert's remarkable life, and really how he became who he was. Even his early years in college astound, during the turbulent events of the sixties where he eloquently wrote about the 16th Street Baptist church bombing that killed four little girls and literally stopped the presses after the Kennedy assassination to his days as a film critic with the Chicago Sun-Times. And finally, to his career in television and his complex relationship with Gene Siskel, his friend and rival.
Indeed, “Life Itself” is in a sense, a movie about the great loves of Ebert's life: writing, movies, Siskel, and his wife Chaz Ebert. Only one of these relationships, to alcohol at least, was toxic, but which ultimately led him to his great affair with Chaz.
This great emphasis on the heart means the film more skims Roger Ebert's life. If you want an in-depth look, it seems as if “Life Itself” decided to leave it to his memoir of the same name. While its heart is firmly on its sleeve, the film refuses to talk down or idealize, as it has a number of his friends and colleagues to chime in at the appropriate times and give us a more intimate look at Ebert's true, and thus very flawed, personality.
It's no mean feat since the documentary begins when Ebert is already very ill and shows him more at the hospital than at home. Indeed, the filmmakers bring up the possibility that he will die before their project is ready, a rather ghostly and unsettling moment. But the movie never stops poking at the void that his absence has left in so many.
After all, Ebert didn't just review the movies, he formed friendships with many filmmakers and made a special effort to highlight some features that were often overlooked. “Life Itself” shows some of these filmmakers both great and small, and among them are Martin Scorsese and Werner Herzog reminiscing how the critic helped further their careers. Herzog actually dedicated one of his films to the critic.
While his cancer robbed him of his voice and thus his ability to converse with them, there's a reason despair never became his natural state. And here there's no sugarcoating the many reasons Ebert had to be melancholy in his final months.
“Most people choose to write a blog. I needed to,” Ebert stated in “Life Itself.”
Many writers may rage at the Internet that cost so many their jobs, and perhaps other less tangible things, but to Ebert it gave him a voice when he could no longer speak. His blog allowed the public to have access to his long history of reviews and work in the way they never have before, and the text to speech software on his laptop allowed him to tell his story even in what would be his final days.
And if you can watch those days and experience no symptoms, you have a heart of stone. From his heartbreaking emails to Chaz's devastating discovery that her husband had signed a DNR, death itself is gazed at unflinchingly, without being exploitative. Rather, it is a deeply compassionate look at the best death possible in such circumstances.
And I can honestly say I have never felt so unworthy of writing a review, or so terrified about what the final product would look like.
Goodbye, Roger Ebert. We'll never have another like you.
Grade: Two Thumbs Up. Also A-.