If you’re Steve James, the director whose career was greatly legitimized after Roger Ebert and Gene Siskel gave your first feature-length documentary “Hoop Dreams” glowing reviews, making a film about Ebert might seem like trite idolization. But James is a much better filmmaker than that. Hell if I were in James’ place I might have fallen into that trap, as I wouldn’t even be writing this without Ebert’s heroic influence on me. In “Life Itself”, based on Ebert’s memoir of the same title, he provides an emotional portrait of the man behind the icon.
The film begins with a contemplative shot of a movie theater in downtown Chicago after Ebert’s death. His name is on the billboard, and fans take pictures in front of the theater. He is gone, but never forgotten.
Cutting back to a few months before his death, we get an honest look at Ebert’s medical condition. Even without his ability to use his mouth, it doesn’t slow him down. There’s still so much life and energy behind those eyes. Never missing a beat, he works the room with his humor through either his laptop or notepad.
As I alluded to before, this is not puff-piece by any means. While it does have a more than deserving elegiac tone to it, it still shows Ebert’s flaws just as much as his triumphs. A universal flaw of most biopics these days is that they seek to make a saint out of their subject. While our triumphs make us memorable, it’s our flaws that make us relatable. Fielding all sides of perspectives, James delves into Ebert’s years of struggle with alcoholism, how a sizable group of critics resented Ebert’s populist approach to criticism, and how he could generally be a truly unlikable man to those around him – key example: He grabbed a cab in front of Siskel’s 8-month pregnant wife.
Perhaps the most gripping moments of the film come in the look at the contentious relationship between Siskel and Ebert. A procedural buddy cop show couldn’t produce partners like these two. When they disagreed they were volatile, when they agreed they were an unstoppable force. While they initially seemed to despise each other, throughout time they somehow grew to respect and even love each other. Their chemistry made for one of the most prolific friendships/rivalry in film history. As Siskel once said “He’s(Roger) an asshole. But he’s my asshole.”
Regardless of any personal feelings one may have on Ebert, it’s undeniable that his reviews had an impact like none other. James conducts interviews with filmmakers whose careers owed a thanks to Ebert’s support like Martin Scorsese, Werner Herzog and Ramin Bahrani. Even when a review was bad, it was still done out of love and desire for a better film, never a toxic powerplay.
James has crafted an emotional and engaging film for a figure that we all thought of when we thought of going to the movies. Ebert’s legacy will never be dismissed, and now thankfully neither will the man.