Whether you love him or hate him, agree or disagree, Chicago Sun-Times Film Critic Roger Ebert played one of the biggest roles in democratizing modern film criticism. Directed by Steve James (HOOP DREAMS), LIFE ITSELF chronicles the warts and all life of Roger Ebert with wit and humor as well as a few tears.
A true rags-to-riches tale, Ebert was born from blue-collar beginnings and through his talent with words became one of the most well-known and respected film critics of all time. A true cinephile, Ebert lived at the movies and cared deeply for them.
His reviews (which were at times scathing) came from the profound passion he felt for films of all kind and a desire to be taken away by the flickering images on the screen. A champion of rising talent, he also was a friend to many established filmmakers that were his contemporaries. Though with that said, he wasn’t above speaking his mind when they created films that he felt weren’t up to snuff.
We witness his rise from college newspaper editor, through his first assignments as a reporter for the Chicago Sun-Times and are there when Ebert wins a Pulitzer Prize for his film criticism.
A good deal of the film rightfully centers on his contentious relationship between him and Chicago Tribune film critic Gene Siskel. The two would be forced to work together on a new show that would review films on PBS and revolutionize film critique for mass consumption. Through many iterations, Siskel & Ebert: At the Movies would continue to grow and amass a wide audience until their “Thumbs up/Thumbs down” became part of the zeitgeist as well as a coveted prize by the studios promoting their new films.
Even though we see how nasty Ebert and Siskel could be with one another through a series of outtakes, we also realize that these two men respected and ultimately loved one another like brothers.
Filmed during his last few months of life, Ebert’s day-to-day struggles coping with the cancer that robbed him of his ability to speak and ultimately his life is interspersed throughout the more biographical sequences. Having had his jaw removed, it can be overwhelming to see how the disease has ravaged Ebert’s face, but not his spirit.
Another key person in Ebert’s life is his wife Chaz. Ever at his side, she struggles with her grief and her inability to let him go, even though at a certain point he resigns himself to his fate. He says that he lived a full life and there are no regrets.
It’s clear by this moving and inspiring film that he has left behind a legacy that will be remembered long after he has left his balcony seat and the lights have come up in the theater.