June 30th, 2014
Steve James’ touching new film about the late Roger Ebert is one of the hardest films to write about. Practically everyone who has been doing this sort of thing for the past thirty years or so owes the man an astonishing duty of appreciation, and many of us may have never considered attempting it had we not seen him and his success.
His passing was particularly painful, and to watch a movie whose substantively sad ending is still so fresh in our collective consciences was heartbreaking at many times.
Yet, even though we know how this is all going to end, “Life Itself” is ultimately life-affirming, with Roger reminding us how to find the joy in our daily grind even under the most disagreeable circumstances. Roger loved life. He loved his life, he loved his wife, he loved his children and grandchildren, and he loved movies. He even found a way to love his long time rival and “At the Movies” co-host Gene Siskel. It is through his love that we can accept his passing at the end, and it is through his love that we hurt all that much more from that passing.
Love is a major theme in “Life Itself.” Even when the camera is focused on something hard to watch, such as how Ebert was fed without a chin, it is clear the documentarian loves his subject. It is clear that many of the people who are called on to speak about the man genuinely love him, from his friends during his early years of his career and the filmmakers whose careers got a major boost thanks to a “Thumbs Up” from him to the every day film fan who never got the chance to meet him but were affected by his opinions. (It is also a sign of love that there is nary an image or mention of his signature show after the passing of Siskel.)
I’m sorry that this isn’t much of a traditional review. It’s been a hard time writing this, for there is not a single false note in the entire production. We get to learn more about Roger Ebert, the good and not so good, presented in a mostly linearly fashion with the occasional well-timed revisit to the relative-present. Excellent questions are asked (like why exactly did the presumably high-minded Ebert write a screenplay for a B-level sexploitation movie with Russ Meyer?) and answered, low points are balanced with high, and we are left with the sense of better understanding this mythic figure who was an important part of so many people’s lives for so many years. It does exactly what a documentary film should do: it informs, it touches your emotions and it does so in an entertaining fashion.
Ebert once called James’ 1994 documentary “Hoop Dreams” “one of the best films about American life that I have ever seen.” I find myself borrowing from Ebert to call “Life Itself” one of the best films about an American life I could ever see.
My rating: A+