Eloquent, honest, humane, and inclusive, Life Itself is a big-hearted, absorbing documentary about a writer who kept on writing until the end. It’s a powerful motion picture, offering a compact appreciation of Roger Ebert’s vast impact, as well as an unflinching peek into a cancer patient’s final months, fraught with pain, worry, and constant treatment.
Steve James (Hoop Dreams, The Interrupters), the filmmaker responsible for possibly the greatest documentary ever made, tells this unapologetic story with little sympathy, as per Ebert’s wishes. The Pulitzer Prize winner was egotistical and petulant, complex and controversial: he denounced Scarface and Blue Velvet, and his antagonism with Gene Siskel was a cornerstone of the program that would change the face of cultural reporting and journalism.
Yet using Ebert’s own words, and interviews with his wife, friends, and colleagues, James cuts straight to the human heart of the matter, celebrating both the writer and the man, the one inseparable from the other, giving measured and pragmatic reflection to many of the things that are most interesting about Ebert’s personal and professional life.
Life Itself also gives us a sense of Ebert as a man who kept reinventing life as he went along – out of necessity, of course, though it’s clear that he also took some pleasure in adapting. Observing his inscribed analysis visually dance its way across the screen as scenes from Cries and Whispers or The Tree of Life play out in the background reminds us of his simple genius: he was generous, accessible, straightforward, infusing the critical world with a desperately-needed injection of the public consciousness. There’s good reason he launched a pop-culture phenomenon.
Ebert saw film as a great civilizing force, “a machine that generates empathy.” Surprisingly moving and beautifully structured, Life Itself stands not only as an impressively clear-eyed portrait and a piece of documentary cinema but an epitaph. It’s a tribute to the career of the world’s most famous and influential film critic and a remarkably intimate portrayal of a life well lived, right up to the very last moment. It paints a captivating portrait of a man who embraced life and art, whose indomitable spirit never flagged even when his body did.
The irony is that even when Ebert famously lost his voice, that couldn’t silence one of America’s most beloved critics and commentators. A eulogy, a commemoration, and a meditation on more than just Ebert’s story, Life Itself probes the mind-body schism and dares us to live more bravely than we did yesterday, all the while ensuring that Ebert’s legacy is enshrined forever. Candid, optimistic, and illuminating, it completes the circular conversation between the man, the movies, and the masses.
Death is a part of life – one that informs everything we do, on one level or another. Watching Ebert characterize whatever time he has left as “money in the bank” will inspire and encourage every audience that witnesses those final moments. Life Itself is a work of deftness and delicacy, by turns about illness, about writing, about cinema, and finally, about dedication to one’s craft and one’s partner despite terrific challenge. It will be a joy for people who love anything with an unwavering passion. My hope is that’s most of us.