Steve James’ feature-length documentary charts the career of acclaimed Chicago Sun-Times film critic Roger Ebert with new interviews with Ebert himself as well as appearances from those that knew him best.
There’s a tragic irony to Steve James’ moving documentary about the life of much admired film critic Roger Ebert. While it was never intended as an epitaph, this celebration of a man who seemed to exist in order to gain a greater understanding of that eternal question about the meaning of life through the moving picture, is a fitting tribute with a finality that even Ebert would have praised.
Acclaimed by not only his peers but even those filmmakers whose work, from time to time, he tore to pieces (Martin Scorsese’s Color of Money, for example), Ebert was driven by a basic commonality with his readership: an adoration of film. Through archive footage (featuring Ebert’s frequent and often argumentative verbal battles with fellow critic Gene Siskel on television), voice-over narration taken from the Life Itself memoir, and brand new interviews with Ebert himself, James captures the former Chicago Sun-Times journalist’s passion for the medium, a ceaseless base emotion that remains throughout his later years despite a crippling fight with cancer.
Taking Ebert’s memoir as its narrative backbone, James’ film nevertheless has a reactionary aesthetic as Ebert’s health takes an unexpected turn for the worst during filming. This sees impromptu visits to the hospital and the documentary maker’s questions being answered via email. It makes for difficult viewing at times; the extent of previous surgeries to remove cancerous tissue from his throat and jaw telling of the destructiveness of the disease. Ebert also communicates via an electronic voice synthesizer which had been a part of his life since he lost the ability to speak in 2007. But it also provides us with an intimate look at an individual who’s determined not to allow this infliction to completely inhibit his enjoyment of life.
Indeed, the fight he shows in his battle with cancer is indicative of his writing on film in that it similarly inspires. Ebert would want it that way. He was a man who intended to learn about life through the experiences of others as depicted on screen, eloquently delivering through his writing the feelings evoked, the lessons learned, the memories taken away. But he didn’t hide from the darker shades of humanity and his invitation to a film crew to chart what would be his final months of life was a last gift to an audience who had journeyed with him to better understand “life itself”.