For me, the movies are like a machine that generates empathy. —
, director Steve James' extraordinary documentary on film critic Roger Ebert, is more than just a biographical profile of the man who would become America's most popular and influential film critic. It's a film about living well and dying well, about the craft of writing and the art of cinema. It's about the movies and the movies' most enduring theme—the power of love.
James (Hoop Dreams
) was given astoundingly intimate access to Ebert in the critic's final months of life, as he dealt with the cancer that would rob him of his speaking voice, his ability to eat or drink and most of his lower jaw. Sensibly, James begins the film with this material, getting it out in front so we can look past it.
The film moves through Ebert's life and career more or less chronologically, snapping back to hospital scenes at irregular intervals. At times, the movie has the woozy rhythms of a rowdy wake as friends and family eulogize and dish. North Carolina-born filmmaker Ramin Bahrani tells a great story about Ebert, Alfred Hitchcock and a jigsaw puzzle. The segments about Ebert's early days as a Chicago newspaperman are the most revealing. We see the Ebert that only his closest friends and colleagues knew—not the pudgy TV celebrity with the thumbs-up gimmick, but the tireless raconteur and "polymathic genius" who could write and drink anyone under the table.
Ebert eventually got sober, won a Pulitzer Prize and teamed with rival critic Gene Siskel to find fame and fortune talking about movies on TV. Interviews with marquee industry names—Martin Scorsese, Werner Herzog, A.O. Scott—establish Ebert's bona fides as a film writer and cultural critic. But it's the love story between Ebert and his wife Chaz that, surprisingly, resonates most.
When James began this project, the intent was to essentially adapt Ebert's 2011 memoir of the same name
, and to profile his "third-act" career as an impossibly prolific blogger and essayist. Ebert's health deteriorated quickly, and James found himself filming harrowing episodes in hospital rooms and rehab facilities. Both Ebert and Chaz display a crazy kind of courage here, letting the camera in to document these painful, vulnerable moments.
The raw immediacy of these scenes throws a curious light on the archival footage and talking-head testimonials. Watching Ebert fight for his life, we can trace that thread of quiet ferocity all the way back to his days as a fiery college newspaper editor. We can see how it powered his tireless advocacy of new directors and his epic feuds with Siskel—captured here in some uncomfortably funny outtakes from the old syndicated TV show. "Roger had an inner core that was made of steel," Chaz says.
That steeliness, paired with Ebert's lightning-fast mind, could be a vicious combination. For some of the funniest and sharpest writing ever produced in the English language, check out Ebert's compilation of negative reviews, Your Movie Sucks
. Ebert mellowed in later years, thanks in large part to his late-in-life partnership with Chaz.
It's a testament to Ebert's legacy that Life Itself—a two-hour documentary about a film critic, for heaven's sake—is getting a healthy theatrical run. It's playing at the Carolina Theatre in Durham and the Colony Twin Theatre in Raleigh. You can get the film online as well, but surely Ebert would want us to see it on the big screen. Highly recommended.