Moving documentary explores life and death of film criticism icon
If you have even a passing interest in film history, you owe it to yourself to see director Steve James’s new documentary about renowned Pulitzer-prize winning Chicago Sun-Times film critic Roger Ebert. While James makes a few questionable directorial choices, the film succeeds as both a compelling biopic about a truly fascinating man, and as a superb primer on the advent of modern day film criticism. Just be sure to bring some tissues, since the film also covers the weightier issues of life, disease, and death, but with exceptional candor and grace.
James, who is perhaps best known for his award winning 1994 documentary Hoop Dreams, was allowed unprecedented access to Robert Ebert and his wife Chaz during the final days of Ebert’s life. None of them knew, though, that Ebert’s death was imminent at the time filming began, about five months prior to Ebert’s passing in April, 2013, at the age of 70.
James started out with the intent of making a traditional biographical documentary, based on Ebert’s 2011 memoir Life Itself, which chronicles Ebert’s personal and professional history. When Ebert suffered a hip facture shortly before filming was to begin, though, and had to enter rehab, James decided to make Ebert’s medical travails and illness a central part of the film. The film intercuts scenes of Ebert and Chaz and their family in the hospital and rehab center with clips, interviews, and narration about Ebert’s early life and rise to success – a riveting story in its own right.
James, however, inserts himself into many of the scenes, filming himself talking to Ebert or Chaz, instead of just recording them, and he includes much of his own commentary along with that of others. Such a directorial choice is a bit jarring, as it moves the focus of the film from its subject to its auteur, but, at the same time, doing so personalizes the film in a way that more traditional, hands-off, neutral direction would not have allowed. James became very close on a personal level with Ebert, and the way he directs the film lets us see that.
As such, though, the film occasionally veers dangerously close to hagiography, as James’s admiration for Ebert is obvious; a segment in which James interviews a friend of Ebert’s at length about Ebert’s love of The Great Gatsby and compares Ebert to Gatsby feels especially heavy-handed. James, however, doesn’t shy away from presenting some of the more unflattering aspects of Ebert’s life, including his egotism, his alcoholism, and his infamous feuding with Chicago Tribune film critic Gene Siskel, Ebert’s co-host on their long-running televised movie review series. Outtakes from Ebert and Siskel’s promos for their show are some of the best parts of the film, giving us an insider’s view into the real men behind the TV personas. Siskel and Ebert’s rivalry was legendary, and was not manufactured for ratings; Ebert and Siskel had fundamental differences in personality and style, but, as the film tells us, by the end of their decades long professional partnership, they were as tight as brothers. James’s detailed examination of their on and off screen relationship is a highlight of the film.
And, of course, Ebert’s resilience after being diagnosed with thyroid cancer and losing his ability to eat, drink, and speak is indeed beyond remarkable. He never succumbed to self-pity or despair, and, if anything, as James tells us, Ebert became a better, more prolific writer during that time, creating his blog in 2008, and becoming an early and fierce adopter of social media platforms to connect with film fans all over the world.
James also does a lovely job recounting Ebert’s relationship with Chaz. Single until age 50, Ebert met Chaz in AA, and the two quickly became inseparable, with Ebert readily bonding with Chaz’s children and becoming a loving and generous husband, stepfather, and step-grandfather. James was fortunate to capture some truly intimate moments between Chaz and Ebert that allow the viewer to witness a deep and powerful connection between two strong and passionate partners. Ebert’s decline becomes all the more heartrending to watch, then, as we witness the affect his illness has on his wife, family, and friends, all of whom are by turns contemplative, funny, and sad, as they provide anecdotes and musings about Ebert’s life and times.
For those of us who grew up watching Siskel and Ebert first on PBS and then in syndication, Siskel’s passing at 53 in 1999, followed by Ebert’s death a year and a half ago, truly marks the end of an era. James’s film is a terrific homage to a bygone era of TV and newspaper film criticism that has paved the way for Internet critics everywhere (including this one). Indeed, at the height of Ebert’s success, more culturally elite critics such as Pauline Kael and Richard Corliss accused Siskel and Ebert of “vulgarizing film criticism.” But Ebert, with his clear, plain, Midwestern style, was a populist, and didn’t view that designation as a bad thing; indeed, he loved film to his core, and felt that anyone anywhere could “get” film. Werner Herzog calls Ebert a “soldier of cinema” in the film, and we learn that Ebert actually went out of his way to showcase new talent and different points of view. Martin Scorsese (the film’s executive producer) also reminisces about Ebert’s influence and friendship in a few especially moving segments.
James’s film benefits from being direct without being maudlin, as it celebrates a man’s extraordinary life while also confronting his death. While not a perfect documentary, the picture is a well crafted, engrossing, fitting tribute to a man whose role in American film was incomparable. Don’t miss this one. We’ll see you at the movies, Roger; we’ll see you at the movies.
Life Itself opens today at the Landmark Embarcadero Cinema in San Francisco and the Landmark Albany Twin in Albany.