When I was preparing to go to the Nantucket Film Festival, the first thing on my list of films to see was Life Itself. I wanted to see it because it is a documentary about Roger Ebert, a film critic who was so central to the development of film criticism in America, and also probably the first person to introduce me to the idea that films could be taken seriously enough to argue about them on television. When I realized that the film was directed by Steve James, whose 1994 film Hoop Dreams was also central in my development as a documentary filmmaker, I was filled with anticipation for what I thought would be a film about Ebert’s work. But the film I saw was not really about film criticism and Ebert’s significance to the field; it was a document of the end of Ebert’s life, when the man known for his words could no longer speak.
I’ve gone back and forth in my mind as to whether or not this was a disappointment. Life Itself does tell Ebert’s story, and there was a lot to his professional development that I did not know about, but because James’ focus is on the man behind the thumbs, the documentary is more about Ebert’s spirit. Yes, there are interviews with directors whose work he championed (most notably Werner Herzog and Martin Scorsese, both of whom I admire), and other film critics, such as A.O. Scott, Jonathan Rosenbaum, and Richard Corliss are interviewed about his contributions to their field, but a good portion of the film is spent on the footage James got of Ebert in his hospital room and in rehabilitation as he tried to recover from cancer, which had plagued him for 10 years. It is that end-of-life struggle that resonates most.
Ebert is depicted as a character of depth and complexity, which is rare in contemporary documentaries. In fiction films, we are given complete access to the characters created for the story–their emotional lives, as well as their behaviors. But in a documentary, we are often limited by the subject’s power to reveal only what (s)he wishes to make public. In this case, the film is based on Ebert’s previously published memoir of the same name, but in James’ hands–with this footage of Ebert at the end of his life, the choice to include his step-children and grandchildren, who learned a lot from him, as well as early outtakes from the Siskel and Ebert television show that demonstrate the very real animosity between the two critics–we see many layers to Ebert’s personality. He is a loving and beloved husband, stepfather, and grandfather. He is a sometimes arrogant film critic and writer who had no trouble defending his views, but who, unlike the stereotypical critic, was just as passionate in promoting outstanding films as he was in cutting down poorly conceived, bad films. It is not all a show for the cameras, although Ebert seems to have been very pleased to have become a film subject in his last days. There are things missing from this documentary (for example, Siskel’s successor, film critic Richard Roeper is never mentioned, although he co-hosted At The Movies with Ebert for eight years), but then how could there not be; no one’s life story can be told in 116 minutes. This depiction feels very real.
Ebert was criticized, along with Gene Siskel, for having simplified criticism with the thumbs up/thumbs down designations, but for those of us who have actually read Ebert’s criticism and not just watched him on TV, the thumbs are a minor part of his contribution. Ebert, the film tells us, once called the movies “a machine that generates empathy.” Life Itself fits that description as well. It also leaves us thinking about mortality, love, passion, and how to embrace life’s challenges. The feeling I left the Dreamland Theater with after seeing Life Itself was one of loss, but at the same time, I felt reinvigorated about the value of cinema, and I think Ebert would have liked that.