Review: Life Itself (2014)

There are few public individuals who have had as much influence on me as Roger Ebert. It’s safe to say that I wouldn’t be writing this review, or be as interested in film and film criticism as I am without his influence as a writer and film lover. As a high school student I remember my friend and I anticipating his weekly reviews, syndicated in our local paper, and treating them as the standard by which we would decide which films to spend our limited cash on that weekend. When I could, I would stay up late on Sunday night, when our local station played Siskel & Ebert’s show, revelling in their back-and-forth and heated arguments (while I’ve always been an Ebert guy, I have gained more appreciation for Gene Siskel in the intervening years). I have the autographed copy of his memoir, from which the film Life Itself is based, sitting on my bookshelf as I write this. His death last spring affected me more than any other death in recent memory of a person whom I didn’t personally know. But that was the point: his reviews, his debates with Siskel, and later his blog and Twitter account made me feel like I did know him. To a certain extent, I did.

Thus, I was very excited when I found out that documentarian, Steve James, responsible for one of the best documentaries of all time in Hoop Dreams, was making a documentary about Roger’s life. Life Itself is based partly on Roger’s memoir of the same name, about his life as a film critic and also his battle against cancer and illness, which included the loss of his voice late in life; but it also argues that this loss led him to discover a new “voice” in his blog and Twitter account, arguably becoming even more connected to his fans and followers around the world after the loss.

Life Itself is framed by the events surrounding Roger’s passing in April of 2013. The documentary was, as is obvious from the film, begun before he died, but his subsequent death gives the film an elegiac tone throughout. One wonders how much the tone and focus of the film changed after Roger’s death, but in many ways it offers the film a focus and helps the film go from being merely a look into the life of a well-liked public figure and to a tribute to his life and work.

Tracing Roger’s life as a child in Urbana, Illinois, his rise as college newspaper editor, and his decision to take a job as film critic for the Sun-Times (giving up an opportunity to do a PhD in English lit. in the process), the film offers the basic biographical information. His friends from those early days offer typical talking head anecdotes, combined with photos and newspaper clippings. It’s fairly conventional stuff, but it shows how brilliant and tenacious Roger was as a journalist first and foremost.

It is in the film’s focus on his early years as a film critic that the film avoids hagiography. While it highlights how brilliant Roger was—his early Pulitzer, his championing of the burgeoning New Hollywood films—it also doesn’t shy away from his unhealthy lifestyle, culminating in his quitting drinking after facing the reality that he was an alcoholic. While his trouble with drinking wasn’t something he was very public about in the past, during his time as a blogger at the end of his life he was very open and candid about it. Because of this, the subject never feels like dishing dirt, but rather goes some way to painting a more complete portrait of his life.

I wrote above that one of the things that set Roger apart from other critics was the way he connected with people. And the film goes a long way to portraying the many ways he connected with the filmmakers whose films he reviewed and recommended or dissuaded people from seeing with his famous thumbs up or down. It’s actually quite shocking how many filmmakers credit Roger with giving them the encouragement they needed at key moments, while at other times keeping them honest about their work when it didn’t reach its potential. Director Steve James himself was championed by Roger, and the film highlights director Ramin Bahrani and, most movingly, Martin Scorsese, who claims Roger saved him when he was in a very bad place in his life.

All that said, the film left me wanting more. A part of me feels like too much time was spent on Roger’s illness and final days, and that I could have enjoyed a lot more about his relationship with Gene Siskel, and the controversy over reviews versus criticism that is addressed by the film only briefly. While I think the value of his writing is unassailable, the debate over whether the Siskel & Ebert television shows merely reduced film into a commodity for consumption is worth having. While I enjoyed the way that Gene and Roger brought the arguments that cinephiles have amongst each other to the screen, the insights into the way the medium of television shaped those opinions are fascinating. For instance, the way speech differs from writing means that a television personality needs to use more direct sentence structure. The film shows how Roger was a natural a conveying his ideas in accessible bits without losing his argument.

Of course “life itself,” is too big a topic for one documentary. A good documentary could have been made about each of the main topics: about Roger’s early life as a newspaper man; the challenges of the various incarnations of the tv show (be sure to read Ignatiy Vishnevetsky’s “I killed At The Movies” for more insight into the challenges of the show and its demise); and his late-in-life illness and rebirth on the internet. Instead, some of the meat seems a bit stripped from bones of this final product. In the effort to cover everything, some pieces don’t get the attention they deserve.

It would be easy to damn the documentary Life Itself with faint praise, simply because it doesn’t quite live up to what I hoped for it, given that it is about one of the most influential writers in my life and directed by the man who made one of the most wonderful documentaries of all time. But it is still worth seeking out as a fine tribute to the man who was undeniably the most important film critic in the world for most of my life.

7 out of 10

Life Itself (2014, USA)

Directed by Steve James.