Title: Life Itself
Reviewed for Shockya by Harvey Karten. Data-based on Rotten Tomatoes
Director: Steve James
Cast: Roger Ebert, Chaz Ebert, Raven Evans, Ava Du Vernay, Ramin Bahrani, Richard Corliss, Nancy De Los Santos, Bruce Elliot, Thea Flaum, Josh Golden, Werner Herzog, Marlene Iglitzen, Donna LaPietra, Rick Kogan, John McHugh, Errol Morris, Howie Movshovitz, Gregory Nava, William Nack, Jonathan Rosenbaum, Martin Scorsese, A.O. Scott, Roger Simon
Screened at: Review 2, NYC, 6/18/14
Opens: July 4, 2014
Of all recognizable film critics, Roger Ebert was not the deepest thinker, the hippest writer, the best looking, or the one most willing to upset every consensus of opinion. For this last quality, think of contrarian Armond White of City Arts. For hip writing, there’s Stephanie Zacharek of The Village Voice, then Rex Reed of the New York Observer for looks, and perhaps David Thomson of The New Republic for depth of analysis. How, then, do we account for Ebert’s becoming the most popular of all, not just in Chicago or America, but globally wherever films are shown? Whatever Steve James’s stunning documentary does show about this iconic figure, it does not evoke a eureka moment in which the viewer says, “Aha, that’s why Roger Ebert is a household word!” But “Life Itself,” which comes from Ebert’s own memoir, is put together brilliantly, the interviews anything but a kaleidoscope of sleep-inducing talking heads. Steve James proves as few other documentarians do that you don’t need Michael Moore or Morgan Spurlock to make an entertaining non-fiction film.
True enough, this is not satiric or particularly humorous, but rather gives us a picture as no other medium can of Ebert’s humanity. We already know he had the smarts, as did his teammate on the long-running PBC TV show Siskel & Ebert Sneak Previews. By catching the critic on his annual excursions to a conference on world affairs we can see that he was one of the most articulate of analysts. And from the editorials he fired off since taking on the role of honcho of his college paper, the Daily Ilini, he was a liberal: pro civil rights at a time that this concept was put to the test. Nor would he tolerate a vulgar ad scheduled for the page just before the news about John F. Kennedy’s assassination. He literally stopped the presses (just like in the movies) and declared that the edition was not going out to the streets.
A good deal of the doc is spent with Ebert in the hospital where he had to undergo several major operations for cancer, first of the spine which put him in a wheelchair, then of the thyroid in which much of his jaw was removed leaving him open-mouthed, unable to eat or drink, and needing daily help to have his throat painfully suctioned out of liquid.
Ebert was no saint. During his early years as a reporter, then a film reviewer with the Chicago Sun-Times, he drank with his buddies in the local bar for hours each day, leading him to battle his alcoholism which, in turn, led him to the Alcoholics Anonymous chapter where he met his wife, Chaz. The more we see Ebert with his wife Chaz in the hospital, the more we see what a devoted couple they were. She would visit, sometimes with folks from her own family daily, making sure the staff did all that was required, though she admits that since Ebert was an only child, he was probably accustomed to the
Interviews are conducted with A.O. Scott, chief critic of the NY Times, plus an assortment of people from various fields including critic Jonathan Rosenbaum of the Chicago Reader, documentarian Werner Herzog, with Marlene Iglitzen, who was married to Gene Siskel, and with filmmaker Martin Scorsese. All-too-brief clips are shown of the films that Ebert liked, particularly Bonnie & Clyde which he called a breakthrough in filmmaking.
I would have liked the doc to be more than a puff piece, to include some of the critics of Siskel & Ebert’s thumbs-up, thumbs-down style, which some sniff has vulgarized critical analysis. Conspicuously absent was John Simon, for example, who referred to the two showmen as “Thumb and Thumber.” But this is a minor cavil considering the emotional footage that Ebert allowed Steve James during the last four months of the critic’s life.
118 minutes. © 2014 by Harvey Karten, Member, New York Film Critics Online.
Story – A-
Acting – A-
Technical – A-
Overall – A-