“He really really loved films,” said Martin Scorsese. Nothing could be more true of the film critic Roger Ebert, a man who inspired the world with his passion, insight, and love of cinema. Director Steve James takes us through a journey of his life, in a fashion that was very refreshing for a documentary.
James knew the risk he took making a film about one of the most iconic and praised film critics this world has ever seen, and he didn’t disappoint. The film takes you through a not-so-chronological story of Ebert’s life. It starts with a visit to his hospital room, post thyroid surgery, after he had some pain in his hip and had to be admitted. After getting a glimpse of his personality at an older age, we get to see what he was like as a young man with a passion for writing.
We’re taken through the story of his life almost haphazardly. Cuts between his life as a growing film critic, and his life after his sickness gave a fresh perspective each time we found out something new. One of the most fun things to watch was his rivalry with Gene Siskel, another film critic who wrote for a much more prestigious newspaper when they first met, but who came together when asked to do a show about films. Their relationship was both terrifying and comical, with insults being thrown one minute and jokes the next. As Gene said, “he’s an asshole, but he’s my asshole.
One of my favorite aspects of this film is the people that are interviewed. They feature a wide variety of his friends and acquaintances, including his family, his friends, and filmmakers who were both popular and not-so-popular. They each gave different views, and painted a clear portrait of the great Roger Ebert.
Towards the end of the film we learn of the effects the disease takes on him, which ultimately lead to his undoing. This was a man who had been optimistic his whole life, and who kept his ambitions up until the day he died. The unraveling of a man who in his lifetime had one of the greatest careers and experiences one could wish for, felt raw and emotional in his last email to James. “I can’t. Cheers, R”.
Life Itself is a clear and precise glimpse into the raw personality that demanded our attention. It’s about passion, hard work, love, loss, and the definition of the phrase “do what you love and find out how to make money doing it.” Roger Ebert loved what he did, and did it up until the day he died, with his last entry being the day before he passed. It ended with “I’ll see you at the movies,” and I think if he were to critique this one, he’d give it a big “thumbs up”. 9/10