Beautiful, but oftentimes difficult to watch, "Life Itself" looks back at one of the most beloved film critic of our time: Roger Ebert. From his early years as a college paper editor all the way until his recent death, we are allowed to see, warts and all, a remarkably satisfying peek into his life and career.
Steve James -- the director of one of the best documentaries of all time, "Hoop Dreams" -- has fashioned an enjoyably heartbreaking film that doesn't shy away from the tragedy, while showing the humor and heart in between. That heart comes from Ebert himself, a man struck by jaw cancer and whose progressive illness left him unable to speak. But he was still able to write -- and masterfully so. From his early years as a journalist vilifying the war to his eventual career as a film critic, Ebert was a confident and arrogant product of his time. Because of his physical appearance, he felt a desperate need to fit in to a sort of niche group of late '60s and early '70s industry hipsters, and did so by becoming a sort of de facto leader.
But it was when the Chicago Sun Times asked him to be their film critic that his career suddenly took a new direction. He was the youngest critic at the time and wrote thoughtful and insightful essays on the movies as if he had been doing it his whole life. (To be fair, the film does gloss over just how Ebert became so educated about film without having gone to film school or having exhibited an obsession with the medium.) Once he was established and a TV show was proposed, the Ebert we fell into a love/hate relationship with started to form. When he was paired with Chicago Tribune critic Gene Siskel, the turbulent relationship of the two made history and they became household names. Soon enough they were the most popular film critics in the world, their "thumbs up/thumbs down" motto became pop-culture fodder, and film criticism became a respected journalistic endeavor.
While the documentary hits all of these moments in time with a depth and fervor they deserve, Ebert himself did not want James to shy away from the realities of what was happening to him -- namely his fight with cancer. The film has numerous sequences of Ebert at the hospital after his jaw has been removed as he goes through a variety of treatments and attempts to communicate with those around him including wife Chaz. He wanted the film to be honest and to show everything -- no matter how hard it was to watch. The result is that we not only get a compelling look at Ebert's career, we also get to see him as a man.
Ebert was a self-conscious man who never thought he would find a wife. He was an alcoholic, a teacher, a philosopher, and a bastard. But he accepted all of these aspects of himself. And as the film progresses toward the final days of Ebert's life, we see how he changed and softened. His tumultuous relationship with Siskel has the most arc of all of his relationships as there are moments of genuine love between the two and Ebert's acknowledgement of his behavior when he and Siskel were at their peak is telling.
As unflinching as this documentary is, it is a reminder that life is fleeting and important and a journey. But it also celebrates the love of film that not only Ebert had, but that many in the world do too. While film can sometimes be looked at as a lesser art form, Ebert clarifies that stance and gives it the power and beauty it so well deserves.
"The purpose of civilization and growth is to be able to reach out and empathize with other people. And for me the movies are like a machine that generates empathy. It lets you understand a little bit more about different hopes, aspirations, dreams and fears. It helps us to identify with the people that are sharing this journey with us."
And in "Life Itself " it is his journey in which we get to share.