Based on the 2011 memoir by its subject, Roger Ebert, “Life Itself” is a fitting tribute to the most popular, if also controversial, film critic of his time. It’s a daunting and unsparing depiction of his last months of life and brave battle against the cancer that would eventually kill him.
I’m sure that if such a film could have been made without Ebert’s partner in “thumbs-up” crime Gene Siskel, it would have. But director Steve James, whose 1994 sports documentary “Hoop Dreams” might have fallen by the wayside had not Ebert and Siskel championed it on their popular TV show, is wise to include not only Siskel in existing footage, but also his widow, Marlene Iglitzen.
The film begins with a shot of a Chicago movie marquee announcing a tribute to Roger Ebert and segues into his unexpected re-admittance to the hospital for a sore hip. It turns out the cancer has returned, and we see Ebert, unable to speak, eat or drink, in a hospital bed, flashing a big thumbs-up. At the same time, James uses still photos, film clips, archival footage and interviews with Ebert, friends and family to tell the story of his working-class childhood in Illinois and years at the University of Illinois (he wanted to go to Harvard), where he edited the college newspaper, and his start as a carousing Chicago newspaperman and eventual film critic for the tabloid Chicago Sun-Times.
It wasn’t until Ebert and Siskel, the Yale graduate and film critic at rival broadsheet the Chicago Tribune, reluctantly teamed up on the local PBS station to do a regular show reviewing films — and frequently getting into bitter disagreements over them — that they found fame as the Laurel and Hardy of film criticism (or as some more rudely put it, “the fat one and the bald one”). Their “thumbs-up” trademark became an instantly recognizable industry trademark.
The film’s funniest segments are outtakes from the taping of Siskel and Ebert’s show, during which they bicker and compete ferociously. Ebert, whose wife, Chaz, and family figure prominently in the film, taught America that film criticism was a lot like talking about sports. With his intimate, first-person writing and analysis, Ebert, the first film critic to win a Pulitzer Prize, personalized and democratized film criticism and paved the way for the bloggers on the Internet who write about film, many of them just people with an opinion.
Ebert was a nonstop writing machine, even while gravely ill. In fact, that is when he took to and mastered Facebook and Twitter and amassed a huge following. Among the filmmakers he boosted at a crucial point in their careers were Martin Scorsese, one of this film’s producers, and Werner Herzog, whose presence is another of this film’s pleasures. Thumbs up, Roger.