I would like to think somewhere Gene and Roger are having a hell of a time debating the artistic merits of this film, would give two thumbs up just to that debate.
As I have mentioned many times on this site the Late Great Roger Ebert’s work was, and continues to be, invaluable to me and many others in helping to better understand the vastly complex cinematic landscape. He was my first professor in the school of the medium; classes were once a week with his appearances on the many incarnations of At The Movies, in a debate style format with another critic in the opposing chair. His style was never meant to be smug or to write over-the-heads of people thus making film criticism accessible to anyone. His essays, witticisms and musings are a great source for any film enthusiast of any kind. His impact to film criticism and the medium as a whole are immeasurable; thus a two-hour film about the would certainly fall short of portraying the impact he had. Director Steven James is well-aware of this fact and instead creates a moving and touching tribute to the very title by simply showing a man’s life in all its diverse shadings.
We start at the very beginning with his birth in Urbana Illinois to his first real writing job as editor at the University of Illinois to his troubles with alcohol and all the way to his indelible film critic career that we all know and love. Through it all we have his friends, colleagues, and the people that Ebert inspired in the filmmaking community to guide us along the journey in recounting their relationships with the man. Some are well-known savants of the craft, i.e Scorsese, Herzog, Errol Morris, others are just his, former, drinking buddies from long ago. The range in the kinds of interviewees help to paint a more complete portrait of a complex and multifaceted figure. The overlaying story presented, however, was Ebert’s on-going battle with thyroid cancer and its effect on the people closest to him, especially on his longtime wife Chaz.
There is no pulling punches here, be warned. Everything about the man’s life with cancer is right on-screen; how much it ravaged his body, stole his voice and crippled him severely. Unable to move, speak and eat without assistance one of the only energizing things lighting his life, along with the support from his family, was his unshakable and profound love for the movies and letting others know about them. It made him a career, now it served to keep him going in one of the painful personal struggles that can be endured.
While that may be the overall story laid out the centerpiece to the film is the nuanced, contentious and engaging relationship he shared with fellow film critic Gene Siskel. The lively debates the two had with each other on seemingly every movie they reviewed on their syndicated show are the stuff of legend, and of many hours wasted on youtube for myself. The two were everything, from fierce rivals to reluctant co-workers to sort of friends. For the time that the two worked together on Siskel and Ebert the only opinion that seemingly mattered was that of the other, and to change it to their own. It was a relationship that would come to help define an era of popularizing media criticism that would take off into the stratosphere with the emergence of the internet. Indeed most bloggers today likely owe a debt to both Siskel and Ebert for making high-minded criticism accessible and mainstreaming the format.
The internet would serve Ebert well too in his later years, as it became impossible for him to relate his thoughts on-camera and with newspapers not reaching the same amount of people that it used to he turned to blogging and web-pages to get his thoughts on a movie that got to him. He also made his thoughts on relevant social issues available for dissection; on gun control, Race relations and video games as art. Here was a man who loved movies and his job, but he was about much more than just his those things. He had worldly concerns and thoughts on existence and of course Life Itself, the title borrowed from his own Memoir.
Steven James does not go in depth into Ebert’s writings, criticism style, favorite movies or his time on Ebert and Roeper (Which I find particularly odd and a glaring omission, Roeper is not even mentioned in the proceedings even though the two had a popular show for 8 years), he merely shows a man’s life and what he meant to people that knew him and many others. Herzog memorably calls him a “Soldier of Cinema”, couldn’t have said it better. I know what he meant to me and seeing how many other people whose lives he touched in numerous methods and ways moves me profoundly.
I never got to meet him, and have no idea what I would’ve done had I ever gotten the chance. The only thing that comes to mind after years of building a sincere admiration and appreciation for film, film criticism and filmmaking, would’ve been to say: “Thank you”.