Can there be any more daunting an assignment for a film critic than to review a documentary about the life of one of the greatest movie reviewers of all time? “Life Itself,” is an affectionate look at the life and death of Roger Ebert, the Pulitzer Prize winning writer and television host whose name has become synonymous with the film criticism.
Ebert lived a public life. Between television appearances—on his own show with Gene Siskel and hundreds of talk show visits—and countless words splayed across the pages of the Chicago Sun-Times, his books and later his website, it seems like there might not be much left that we don’t already know about Ebert.
Director Steve James, who also made “Hoop Dreams,” one of Ebert’s favorite films, digs deep to present something that is beyond a simple biography. We learn about how the critic wrote the screenplay for the Russ Meyer’s opus “Beyond the Valley of the Dolls,” the legendary ego clashes with his TV partner and that he met his wife at an AA meeting but that’s just trivia. Instead, using a mix of talking head interviews, archive footage, and most importantly, interviews with Roger and wife Chaz, James crafts an intimate, revealing and moving portrait of a complex man.
Ebert passed away on April 4, 2013 during the production of the documentary. Stricken with cancer, he knew he would likely not live to see the finished film, but communicated through his laptop (with voice translation) for as long as he was able. One of his last messages to James said simply and eloquently, “I’m fading.” It’s a heartbreaking and bittersweet moment in the movie that gives life to Ebert’s theory of movies being “a machine to generate empathy.”
“Life Itself” never shies away from the difficult parts of the story. Moments of frustration and pain are included but ultimately the doc is a wake for the late film critic. Stories are shared, secrets are told and a life is celebrated.