I was in pieces when Roger Ebert died. I have never felt so broken up about the passing of someone I had never met in person. Following his death, I picked up Life Itself, which has now become something of a holy book to me. It is an informative autobiography, manifesting itself as both an invaluable guide to film journalism and, oddly, as a sage blueprint to being a better person.
But Life Itself, though a beautiful memoir, still left me without internal closure. Ebert’s musings about the joys of living haunted me. I was reading them in July 2013 and I knew an important fact not buried in the pages of his book: two years after finishing Life Itself, he would die. This was unbearable. I needed someone to fully acknowledge the passing of one of my heroes, a postmortem epilogue to quench the ache he had left behind. This documentary fills that void. It shows I am not alone in missing that scowling round man from the television, the man whose own words convinced me films were worth taking seriously.
Director Steve James had a vision when he set out to make the film version of Life Itself. He had extensive interview questions for Roger Ebert paced out to the roadmap of his movie. But at some point soon after he started filming, James came to understand something important. Ebert, known as a great storyteller to his friends, was going to have the project done his way. Without the ability to speak and with no way to walk, Roger Ebert nevertheless took Steve James’ film and made with it what he wanted. And James, bless him, stepped humbly aside for his friend.
It takes courage to do what Steve James did. Few if any filmmakers are willing to remove their own authorship from their movie; professional ego tends to get in the way. But James, a talented and respected director in his own right, knows no one is seeing Life Itself for his name. They are seeing because it is about Roger Ebert, and James is content with that.
This moment of clarity transcends James’ filmmaking. It pervades the stuff of the film and allows him to cut incisively to the misshapen core of his subject. There are documentaries that peel back layers of fame to reveal the human underneath, but none of them make you forget you are watching a celebrity the way Life Itself does.
James does not achieve this feat by merely replacing Ebert’s book with his film counterpart. Instead, his film complements the source material. Although it overlaps tangentially with the material Ebert wrote, occasionally offering narration from an Ebert soundalike as he reads through passages of Life Itself, James smartly avoids any attempt at historical chronology or simple retelling. Instead, he admits plainly and without words that what was once an attempt to chronicle Ebert’s life was now a gift, a band-aid offered to the public to help cope with the departure of a giant.
Through heartfelt testimony from friends, family, and colleagues, the story of Life Itself becomes a unique and telling account of the man from the mouths of those who loved him. It gives insight into his faults and dreams. Embarrassing anecdotes and biting admonishment color James‘ tribute to the man. Life Itself is a triumph of kind, but fair, portraiture.
Ebert once said, “A lot of critics are almost shy about confessing that they had any emotional reaction. If you laughed, say you laughed. If you cried, say you cried.”
So I confess this for his sake: I wept through most of Life Itself, far more than I have at any movie to date. Hearing Roger Ebert speak through his computer one more time filled me with welled-up emotion I haven’t felt since last April. If that sounds melodramatic, blame that man himself for my candidness. In fact, blame him for this whole review, this site, and my career. It is his fault I’m a critic, and I thank him every day for it.
There is a moment late in the film where Ebert reveals that his cancer is back and that he only has a few weeks left to live. His wife, Chaz, talks optimistically about radiation treatment. But behind her, Ebert shakes his head at her obstinate positivity before throwing his hands up in exasperation. Watching a man accept his fate so resolutely, and so calmly, was a moment of intense sadness for me.
But it was also a moment of discovery. It was then that I realized I had stopped caring about Roger Ebert the critic, the award-winner, the writer, and started caring for Roger Ebert the person. He could never have communicated this himself; Ebert had a habit of muddling his own self-image with magnificent prose and articulation that only served to remind me of his imposing reputation. Only an external source like Steve James could offer such human perspective to a world in mourning.
How fitting that such acumen came in the form of a movie, and how just that it came from his friend. I daresay Ebert would have liked that.
Verdict: Movie Win