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Friday, June 6, 2014

Life Itself Review: Roger Ebert Would Be Proud

The poignant and powerful documentary about Roger Ebert separates the myth from the man.

One of my earliest memories is sitting in front of a 13" black and white television in my bedroom, watching PBS' Sneak Previews with film critics Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert raving about Christopher Reeve in Superman. We had never seen anything like this before, and the effect they would have on both the industry and moviegoers was profound. The Steve James documentary Life Itself puts that into perspective, crafting a personal and powerful story that's at once difficult to watch but important in its message.

Given unfettered access to what would be Ebert's final four months, James set out to record the life and times of Hollywood's most powerful film critic. The images of Ebert's last months are stunning: missing most of his jaw and confined to a wheelchair for long periods, he's undetermined and feisty as ever, joking with medical staff as they painfully drain fluid from his throat while typing into a computer and writing reviews. From there, James moves into a unique documentary that's more thematic than chronological, using responses from Ebert's emails to guide his way to a sit-down that sadly never happened.

James - who received tremendous support from Ebert for his film Hoop Dreams - lovingly but honestly rewinds the clock to show a different kind of man than the public persona. We see Ebert early in his career, not as a critic, but surprisingly as a social commentator of the turbulent 1960's. And although it's his work at The Chicago Sun-Times that would eventually focus his voice, Ebert's admitted battle with alcoholism in 1979 threatened to end his career. We learn of his late marriage to Chaz and his battles with fellow critic Gene Siskel - who died from cancer in 1999 - that made Ebert into the cultural icon he eventually became.

James smartly sprinkles in the 2011 memoir Life Itself - which is read by a voice actor that sounds just like him - along with interviews by filmmakers Werner Herzog and Martin Scorsese, who's also executive producer. An intensely personal tale, Life focuses not just on Ebert the man but as the critic who changed the American dialogue. James doesn't shower his topic with adoration, allowing pundits like Roger Corliss to rip Ebert for his signature thumbs-up, thumbs-down judgments. It's an interesting path to take, but one that ultimately works.

In the end, Life Itself celebrates a life spent in movie theaters, richly but honestly told in a fitting epitaph to Ebert's work. We might not like the modern era of cutthroat journalism, but we can certainly see a portion of its genesis in James' very good documentary.

Life Itself is rated R for brief sexual images/nudity and language and has a runtime of 116 minutes.

Discuss this review with fellow SJF fans on Facebook. On Twitter, follow us at @SandwichJohnFilms, and follow author Matt Cummings at @mfc90125.

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