There’s a lovely sentiment that the late movie critic Roger Ebert expressed when describing what movies were to him and why this medium that he spent his life covering still mattered.
“The movies are like a machine that generates empathy.” A good film takes you into another point of view, into an alien place and puts you in someone else’s shoes.
Ebert championed such films and those who made them. That’s one reason his death, in 2013, was widely mourned, and why he merits a Steve (“Hoop Dreams”) James documentary, “Life Itself.” It celebrates Ebert’s life and times, and documents the last months of his battle with cancer.
That very public death, in which he revealed the extent of his suffering and the damage cancer did to his jaw, robbing him of his speaking voice and much of his face, is another reason for that mourning. He faced the end, online and in public, with guts and grace.
“Life Itself” takes us through Ebert’s career, his drinking years, the “unspeakably romantic” life of newspapering and the Pulitzer Prize that life gave him. Then it pairs the longtime Chicago Sun-Times critic with cranky crosstown Chicago Tribune rival Gene Siskel, and “Life Itself” turns funny.
The two Windy City critics lorded over the Golden Age of American Movie Reviewing, when every magazine and newspaper had a critic or two and many of them turned up on TV as well. Starting their debate on Chicago public TV, spreading nationwide, then going into syndication and earning big bucks, they became a brand — “Siskel & Ebert” — and every movie studio wanted its wares to wear their “thumb’s up.”
Did they dumb down their writing, pander to the TV audience and reduce reviewing to something simplistic, as Richard Corliss (Time magazine) and others complained? Sure. Were they as testy to each other off camera as they seemed on the show? Anybody who has trolled YouTube for cutting, profane bickering outtakes from their shows doesn’t need testimony from the TV producers they worked with, interviewed here, to know that was true.
“Life Itself” isbuilt on the framework of Ebert’s memoir, with fresh interviews with Ebert (he used a computer voice synthesizer, like Stephen Hawking) and Ebert’s own book-on-tape narration, and gives us the guy behind the critic. Far more beloved than Siskel, he was a “populist” critic whose approachable tastes and style flew in the face of the snobbier grande dame of critics, the New Yorker’s Pauline Kael, who ruled the roost when Ebert’s career began.
The surprises in the documentary are the frankness with which both Ebert and his wife, Chaz, speak of his (and her) alcoholism andlovely passages with the Chicago newspaper barflies who used to regale each other and be regaled by Ebert during the ’70s.
And his early ’60s college newspaper writing, about race and the civil rights movement, is a revelation. The passion and skill with the language were there, from the beginning. He just turned his focus to the movies.
The “balance” of “Life Itself” comes from suggestions that he sold out, was compromised by his access to the people he covered. Several former colleagues discuss his “only child” petulance, as remembered during the years he did the TV show but also evidenced by defiant footage of his last days — hellbent on hearing “Reeling in the Years” by Steely Dan before he’ll sit still for more treatment.
The best interviews are the filmmakers, young ones such as Ava DuVernay (“I Will Follow”) and Ramin Bahrani (“Man Push Cart,” “Chop Shop”) who received direct, personal encouragement, and legends such as Werner Herzog and Martin Scorsese, appreciating that even when he criticized them, he did it gently.
Unlike Ebert himself, “Life Itself” is a bit long-winded. And some of the “final days” footage is hard to watch — unpleasant, and kind of manipulative. Even that approach connects to Siskel, who died a very private death from cancer years before, as if Ebert was having one last “I can do it better” contest with his frenemy / co-host.
But in the digital media / movies-on-cellphones era, “Life Itself” is a grand testament to a life lived loving movies, on screens that were larger than life and were reviewed by a couple of genuine characters.
3 stars (Grade: B-plus)
Cast: Roger Ebert, Chaz Ebert, Gene Siskel, Martin Scorsese, Werner Herzog, Errol Morris
Directed by Steve James. A Magnolia/CNN Films release.
Running time: 2:00
MPAA rating: R for brief sexual images/nudity and language