If Roger Ebert had never written a film review nor dramatically articulated his thumb, he would have still been a man to admire.
Steve James’ new documentary on the late critic has plenty on Ebert’s Chicago rise to Pulitzer-winning reporter, his unique position as the world’s most famous film critic and his robustly populist cinephilia. But what comes through most in “Life Itself,” a film named after Ebert’s 2011 memoir, is his great, open-minded vigor.
His undying movie love. His passionate embrace of the Internet late in life. His bravery in the face of cancer. His championing of overlooked filmmakers. His generous support of younger critics.
Ebert’s voice grew stronger after he lost it. His life seemed to swell in integrity with age. For someone who made a living in criticism, he was an unusually positive force, largely free of the cynicism that often plagues the profession.
Capturing that is the essence of “Life Itself,” which, at its best, has the glow of a wake in an old Chicago bar, the kind Ebert used to haunt and the kind some of his old newspaper pals speak from in the documentary. Before giving up drinking, Ebert lived as fast as he wrote.
James has often documented Windy City tales, including “Hoop Dreams” and “The Interrupters” — films Ebert hailed. “Hoop Dreams,” Ebert wrote with typical directness, “is what the movies are for. It takes us, shakes us and makes us think in new ways about the world around us. It gives us the impression of having touched life itself.”
Ebert was defined, perhaps, by that eagerness to see outside himself. In a taped speech at the start of the documentary, he calls the movies “a machine that generates empathy.”
Of course, he wasn’t a saint. Ebert could be snippy and egotistical, particularly when prodded by his “At the Movies” co-host, Gene Siskel. Some of the most entertaining clips in “Life Itself” are familiar videos that have long been on YouTube of the two bickering in outtakes.
Ebert’s voluminous reviews and simple, up-or-down judgments, too, were sometimes derided as “junk food,” as Time’s Richard Corliss once levied. Either way, most writers today would gladly welcome a return to the days when any single critic held such sway, regardless of its nutritional value. Time, in the end, has been kind to Ebert’s achievement. Corliss sounds regretful in the documentary, and director Werner Herzog’s label of Ebert — “a soldier of cinema” — has won out.
James began the documentary before Ebert’s passing at the age of 70 in April 2013. So the film is full of footage of Ebert battling his cancer of the thyroid and salivary glands and conspiring with his longtime wife, Chaz, to sneak out of the hospital to go to the movies. He even sneaks information on his medical status to James that he shields from Chaz. (She, it should be noted, is in many ways the hero of the film: an astoundingly steadfast companion to her husband through his pain.)
Despite surgeries that removed his lower jaw and left him unable to speak, Ebert kept typing away up to the end. He died a day after announcing his retirement. Shortly before his death, he wrote of his life, “You can’t say it wasn’t interesting.” Thumbs up to that.
(At the Tivoli.)
Rated R | Time: 1:58