Life Itself may tell the story of a remarkable life, but it’s at its most enlightening when dealing with death. Steve James’ documentary on Roger Ebert naturally chronicles its subject’s exploits, trials and triumphs as he became the most recognizable film critic in the United States. But it weaves his life story around footage shot during the last months of his life, as we see the effect his impairments and mortality have on him and his loved ones.
Many of us who grew up reading Ebert felt a personal connection to him. “I feel like we’ve lost a member of the family,” my mom told me when he died. Countless obituaries cited his writing as a gateway to watching and thinking about films critically. But while Ebert often shared his personal feelings in essays and reviews, he only let out what he wanted to let out. It was only in recent years that he started discussing touchy details like his battle with alcoholism, and even then, we only got his side of the story. Director James brings in interviews with Ebert’s friends and colleagues to paint a thorough portrait of a man who was at times a jerk, at times gracious, at times self-obsessed, but always passionate.
Ebert and his wife, Chaz, brought James in to make the movie version of Ebert’s 2011 memoir of the same title. The choice could certainly be considered self-aggrandizing, as few documentarians have James’ pedigree, but why wouldn’t Ebert want a director he loves to tell his story? James’ breakthrough 1994 classic Hoop Dreams received much of its well-deserved success in large part because Ebert championed it on his TV series and in print. But James certainly can’t be accused of making a puff piece to do an old friend a solid. He includes details that most of us would want left out of documentaries on our lives.
While James’ best-known works like Hoop Dreams and The Interrupters mainly use location footage and natural-feeling interviews shot by James, the historical segments of Life Itself take on a slick production quality that would be more closely associated with Ken Burns—complete with old photos and archival footage. The movie jumps around chronologically, using the contemporary footage as a pivot. James lets Ebert—or an Ebert impersonator, anyway—speak for himself with voiceover excerpts from the book, then augments it with talking-head interviews that offer further perspective and insight.
James is most at home while working with his own footage, and that’s where the movie really shines. Shooting began a few months before Ebert’s death, but no one knew that the end would come so soon. Ebert had been publicly battling cancer for several years. Surgeries and subsequent complications in 2006 left him with no jaw, nearly unrecognizable and unable to eat without tubes or speak without a computer. When James joins him, Ebert is doing even worse after breaking his hip. While he remains cheerful, it’s clear to see the emotional toll of the pain and frustration that stems from his condition.
Chaz has a strong personality in her own right, and the film compellingly depicts the strong impact she had on Ebert’s life. Most touching are her efforts to get her husband through all his hardships and health problems. While his mind is still spry, he is not the man he used to be. Communication is slow due to having to type what he wants to say, and procedures that involve tubes going down his throat are physically and mentally exhausting. Chaz finds herself battling not only to motivate her husband to fight on, but to keep her own spirits high.
Obviously, it’s great to get more dirt on Ebert’s intense rivalry with his famous TV partner, Gene Siskel, and see Ebert’s hard-hitting political prose for his college newspaper. But Life Itself finds Ebert’s real heart in its present-tense story. The rest simply puts it into perspective. Ebert often professed his love for documentaries that unfold in a way the filmmakers couldn’t have predicted when production began. He surely would have loved this one.
Director: Steve James
Starring: Roger Ebert, Chaz Ebert
Release Date: July 4, 2014