Life Itself


I always looked forward to Friday mornings when I was growing up. I had a very specific routine: pour a bowl of cereal, grab a glass of milk and pick up the “Arts and Entertainment” section of the newspaper – which had the movie reviews of the weekend’s latest releases. Practically all the reviews were by Roger Ebert, and it was through his words that I understood movies could be more than mere entertainment.

Life Itself is a documentary about the man behind the movie criticism. Director Steve James began filming the documentary five months before Ebert’s death in April 2013, and because of this, most of the present-day footage is shot during multiple hospital and rehabilitation visits for Ebert. It’s tough watching the present-day scenes. Ebert had lost the ability to speak, eat, and drink after surgery removed cancer from his jaw. You can see in his eyes the same passion, wit and intelligence, but he’s trapped in a body that isn’t able to keep up.

The rest of the documentary is a blend of archival footage, interviews with close friends and family, and narrated excerpts from Ebert’s memoir of the same name (the narration is done by a voice-over actor, but he sounds eerily close to Ebert). There’s some great outtakes of Siskel & Ebert & the Movies where the two critics take turns sniping at each other or blaming the other one for ruining takes. I always imagined that they had a great relationship from the start, but the film proves otherwise; it was only through years of working together that they came to have a grudging respect for one another.

There’s an interesting parallel between Ebert and Siskel that the film recognizes: Siskel decided to keep his inoperable brain tumor a secret (only his wife and a few select family members knew) whereas Ebert decided, in response to Siskel’s choice, that he would be open and honest with his health struggles. Admirably, the film doesn’t imply that one choice is better than the other, but emphasizes the differences between the two men in criticism and in their approaches to death.

It’s strange to admit, but Life Itself is less about Roger Ebert and more about his loving relationship with his wife, Chaz. They married when Ebert was 50 years old and she changed his life. During the present-day scenes, she’s always in the hospital, encouraging Ebert to push himself and offering her support. The emotional core of the film is watching Chaz cope as the man she loves slowly slips away from her. There’s a decision that Ebert makes late in the film without Chaz’s knowledge, and it is a heartbreaking revelation.

Life Itself is an elegant documentary that is more than just a simple telling of Roger Ebert’s life and “greatest hits.” Instead it is a difficult, but ultimately life-affirming, film about what we leave behind when we’re gone, and how one man chose to live his life while he was here.

Grade: A



One Response to Life Itself

  1. Julia Turnbull says:

    I have to see this documentary. It sounds inspiring!!

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