Director: Steve James
Cast: Roger Ebert, Chaz Ebert, Marlene Iglitzen, Gene Siskel
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The story of Life Itself is one which would have made for a great fictional story, complete with a diverse cast of characters.
Film critic Roger Ebert is our unlikely hero – a man who, with the best will in the world, was not one naturally suited to the screen – who goes through ups and downs in his life, including alcohol addiction, but who finds peace both in his dedication to film as a medium but also in his wife, Chaz, and his step-family.
Gene Siskel is portrayed as a professional rival and sparring partner, who, in a filmic twist of fate, has to work with Ebert on screen every week. Tales of their one-upmanship course through the film, some funny, some pathetic, before they become friends and a sort of bromance emerges.
His story, though, is real. If you’re reading this, Roger likely needs no introduction. A giant of film criticism who did more to bring it into the mainstream than any other person in history, his is the like we will probably never see again. An old-school newspaper man thrust into the world of film, and who thrived on it, his spirit was only finally defeated by his own body.
Director Steve James started working with Ebert on this documentary when everyone involved thought Ebert would be around to see it – it is a damned shame he isn’t, as Life Itself is a wonderful tribute to a man, which also manages to not be a hagiography.
Ebert may be our hero, but James’ film isn’t afraid to show off Roger’s worse nature. His unrelenting ego in his youth is talked about fairly often and Siskel’s widow, Marlene Iglitzen, also throws in some jabs about Ebert’s character – although even she has a narrative arc of sorts, as by the end, it is clear she had affection for him, or at least what he did for her husband. The documentary never bangs this drum particularly loudly, but the moments here bring some welcome balance and take the film further away from being a sort-of puff piece.
The villain, unlike many movies, comes from a very real place in the form of cancer and its effect on the human body. Among the life-affirming material found in the film, Ebert and James never shy away from showing uncomfortable scenes involving his illness. One moment where we hold on Ebert having an invasive tube put down his throat is remarkable in how bare-faced it is. What is just as stunning, though, is Ebert’s positive reaction to the footage. James also shows us a scene which mixes the cancer with a rather more petulant side of Ebert, as Chaz has to try and deal with getting him up some stairs while he is in an uncooperative mood.
Roger obviously had great affection for Steve and just how much he let the director into his life during such a dark time is a true testament to his character. As much as the contributions from Martin Scorsese, Werner Herzog and many other filmmakers are entertaining, it is the universal this-could-happen-to-anyone moments that most hit home here.
Life Itself pretty much demands to be seen by anyone with a passing interest in film criticism, but also for those who want to watch compelling human drama. Until the end, Ebert is a gregarious – although imperfect – soul, who is just as watchable as the characters in his most beloved films. Steve James has crafted a remarkable documentary here that will bring sadness and joy to all who watch it. If it were possible to have five thumbs, they would all be up.