A film review by Craig J. Koban August 15, 2014 


2014, R, 120 mins.


A documentary written and directed by Steve James

''For me, the movies are like a machine that generates empathy.  It lets you understand a little bit more about different hopes, aspirations, dreams, and fears.  It helps us identify with the people who are sharing this journey with us.'' 

– Roger Ebert


I still own my copy of the 1992 edition of Roger Ebert’s Movie Home Companion.  I purchased it at a  bookstore in North Dakota that year and it was the very first book of film criticism that I even owned.  I read it in its entirety – every review, every article, and every interview – from cover to cover during that summer.  


The book itself is now being held together by tape and sheer will power, mostly because it’s falling apart from the innumerable number of times I’ve flipped through it.  To the movie-naïve 17-year-old in me back then it taught a few invaluable lessons that I take to this day as a critic: (1): Just like movies are an art form, there is a subtle art to the act of writing film reviews and (2) Ebert stayed true to himself in his writings and strayed away from popular audience and critical tastes.  He frequently loved films that were collectively hated and hated films that were collectively loved.  You just have to admire that.


I never fully agreed with every film review that Roger Ebert even wrote, but I always admired the skill, precision, and plain-spoken manner he had with relaying why he thought the way he did about the thousands of films he screened in his lifetime.  It’s fitting that CITIZEN KANE was his pick for the greatest film ever made; Ebert is easily the CITIZEN KANE of film critics, seeing as his omnipresent sphere of influence on both critics and the movie world as a whole cannot be underestimated.   Director Steve James’ (HOOP DREAMS, a film that Ebert himself championed so many years ago) new documentary LIFE ITSELF – based somewhat on Ebert’s own memoirs of the same name – is an intrinsically detailed, frequently moving, and surprisingly democratic portrait of a true icon of the movie world.  It would be easy for a doc about Ebert to engage in petty and lazy hero worship, but James manages to circumvent such pratfalls by presenting a warts-and-all chronicling of the Pulitzer Prize winner’s life and times.  He shows Ebert as an eclectically complicated and, yes, deeply flawed person.  LIFE ITSELF is frequently tough to watch and endure, which consequently makes the film feel richer and fuller.


The fact that the doc is a fairly traditional one – on-the-fly archival footage, talking heads interviews, photos, newspaper clippings, etc. – is both unavoidable and somewhat disappointing.  Yet, James makes up for such minor shortcomings in terms of what he does with the material and conventional format.  The relationship between James and Ebert revealed in LIFE ITSELF is extraordinary, seeing as the director had incredible access to Ebert during what would be – at the time – the final few months of his life in a Chicago hospital as he hellishly waged a war on thyroid cancer that removed his lower jaw and, more tragically, his ability to speak, eat, and drink.  The film contains ample footage – intercut throughout with key moments of his past life – of the unspeakable ordeals that Ebert went through on a daily basis to stay alive.  The camera is unflinchingly close showing Ebert’s deformed lower face as nurses perform what must have been excruciating procedures to drain fluid via a hole in his neck.  So very few documentaries of a public figure have achieved such jarring intimacy with their subjects as much as this one. 




LIFE ITSELF dutifully serves as a biography of Ebert himself, highlighting his humble beginnings as a brash and confident student journalist/editor for the University of Chicago newspaper to becoming a writer for the Chicago Sun Times and ultimately their chief film critic (he got the job because of pure timing; their critic at the time was retiring).  Through the on-screen conversations with some of Ebert’s more loyal friends and family members (Chaz Ebert, his wife, in particular), we gain an impression of a young Ebert as a man full of boundless confidence and skill.  He was the envy of his colleagues for how savvy and assured he was in his prose, and he was a generally likeable man on the social scene…to a point, at least when his arrogant hubris didn't get in the way.  Bruce Elliot, a friend of Ebert and bar owner, matter-of-factly states at one point, “He was a nice guy…but not that nice.”  Another friend of Ebert’s commented on the critic’s less-than-stellar taste in women: “Gold diggers, opportunists, or psychos…he had the worst taste in women of any man I’ve ever known.”  One account even recalls Ebert bringing a “hired lady” out to the bar for some fun.


LIFE ITSELF never shies away from highlighting Ebert as a man that was capable of self-destructive gluttony and damaging impulses.  James does touch on Ebert’s battle with chronic alcoholism in the late 1970’s and how that nearly derailed his career and life (he eventually met his future wife Chaz in an AA meeting).  More details that will sure to surprise those not too familiar with Ebert’s life was his early involvement in the film career of Russ Meyer (he penned the script to his BEYOND THE VALLEY OF THE DOLLS and enjoyed working with Meyer mostly because of – in a brilliant one word explanation from one of his friends in the doc – “boobs”).  But Ebert is perhaps best known for being a rallying champion of up-and-coming filmmakers himself; he was the first critic to spearhead the charge of a then young Martin Scorsese back in 1967 as a bold new voice in contemporary American cinema.  Scorsese, also an executive producer of the doc, lovingly recalls Ebert’s supportive review of his debut feature and how he kept a newspaper clipping of it in his pocket for motivation afterwards.


Of course, LIFE ITSELF would not be complete without an exploration into Ebert’s rise on television with the late Gene Siskel (another unfortunate victim of fate like Ebert, who died before him of cancer as well).  The revelations of their oftentimes-tumultuous relationship in the doc are hardly anything fresh or enlightening (many of the film’s clips of their behind-the-scenes bickering – which approached infantile levels – can be easily seen on YouTube).  Nonetheless, James does pay fitting tribute to their on-screen legacy and gets many fascinating anecdotes from the widows of both parties about their inordinately competitive nature and ability to verbal abuse each other whenever they saw fit.  Ultimately, for as heated as their professional rivalry was, Siskel and Ebert were as thick as siblings; Siskel, it could be said, was the surrogate older brother to Ebert that he never had being an only child.  James doesn’t focus enough attention, though, on the controversial legacy that TV criticism during and in the wake of the Siskel and Ebert program reduced written criticism to a simplistic moniker of “good and bad”, “Thumbs up or thumbs down” recommendations.  It’s touched upon, but frustratingly in a limited capacity.


Siskel and Ebert’s bromance aside, the real love of the latter’s life was Chaz, who is shown in LIFE ITSELF as a woman of miraculous patience and inner strength for staying by her husband during the last several arduous years of his life.  The central tragedy of Ebert was that cancer robbed him of his ability to speak as an on-screen critic, but it was largely through the nurturing love and support of Chaz that he soldiered on and continued to write film reviews and blogs up until the point when he died (some of his closest friends/colleagues said that he was never a better writer than during his last few months).  It eventually dawned on me that LIFE ITSELF perhaps is not so much about a film critic and his writings, but is more of a love story between two souls that stuck by each other through the worst possible circumstances.  The end of the doc leaves one with the notion that Ebert was an incredible individual of courage and optimism.  He never felt discouraged from James’s camera lingering on his face and hospital stay.  Even though these scenes are mostly unbearable to witness, they oddly remain touchingly inspirational.  Ebert remained cheerfully positive – as much as he could be considering his condition – when most men would emotionally break.  I'm certain that a majority of people that knew that death was near would never allow a camera crew the type of access that Ebert granted James.


And, of course, there was Ebert the writer, and it could be said that James sometimes loses focus on what made his work so influential and well established.  Ebert arguably has written more reviews that any critic, has penned dozens of books (some of which have nothing to do with movies), made countless appearances on Johnny Carson, David Letterman, and so on.  He ate, drank, slept, and breathed the cinema with an unmatched enthusiasm.  He was also arguably one of the only film critics that, it could be said, helped foster and shape film careers themselves.  He forged strong friendships with directors Werner Herzog and Scorsese while still trying to maintain some professional distance with them (he did, after all, have to review their films).  One of the most touching anecdotes is from a teary-eyed Scorsese as he recounts how Ebert decided to hold a lavish tribute to the director at the Toronto International Film festival in the 1980’s when he was battling from career artistic lows and substance abuse problems.  It was this tribute, in Scorsese’s mind, that helped him get back on track in his career.  Even when Ebert gave “bad” reviews to some of his films (like THE COLOR OF MONEY), Scorsese emerged from the heartbreaking dejection of his friend as a renewed man of purpose.  If anything, he took a negative review from Ebert as advice on what not to do in the future.


That’s Roger Ebert in a nutshell.  He was one of the most truthful – at least to himself – film critics of all-time.  He always stuck to his guns.  My heart wanted me to give LIFE ITSELF four stars, but the critic in me – that Ebert’s work helped form – won’t allow me to do so.  I must be truthful to myself.  James’ doc does have some obtrusive omissions (there is not one single interview or sound bite with Ebert’s long-time Siskel replacement Richard Roeper, nor is there of another famous Chicago citizen – and Ebert friend – Oprah Winfrey).  The film sometimes lacks symmetry in its focus as well – sometimes it bounces from one unrelated beat to the next with fluidity and poise...and sometimes it doesn’t.   Yet, LIFE ITSELF is an uncommonly well-rounded documentary that both honors the supreme film legacy of Ebert while simultaneously showcasing his eccentric flaws and shortcomings as a professional and human being.  


Deep down, I think that Ebert would respect me giving this film three stars…. although he would have fought me on it and challenged me to change my mind.

  H O M E