This Sunday, Steve James’ poignant documentary about the
late Roger Ebert, Life Itself, will air on CNN at 9:00pm and 11:00pm ET. It’s one of
the past year’s finest nonfiction films and I can’t recommend it highly enough;
it’s on the shortlist for consideration as an Academy Award nominee. If you
still haven’t seen it, this is a perfect opportunity. To whet your appetite,
and/or refresh your memory, here is the review I posted when the film opened in
Life Itself is more
than a biography of a well-known film critic: it is the story of a born
journalist who had a profound impact on popular culture, and then made an even
greater contribution when he was robbed of his ability to speak. Roger Ebert
was no ordinary critic, and in his final years he met every challenge hurled in
his path—and proved to be an extraordinary human being. That’s what filmmaker
Steve James has captured in his deeply moving documentary, which is about many
things, including journalism, friendship, television, health, resourcefulness,
social media, love…and life itself.
Ebert came from a working-class background and fell in love
with writing at an early age: not just writing, but the world of newspapers. He
had found his calling, and it was only after college that he wound up covering
the movie beat for the Chicago Sun-Times.
He became the first film critic to ever win the Pulitzer Prize for his work—and
that at age 23!
If you were around when Roger and his arch-rival, Chicago Tribune critic Gene Siskel,
became TV celebrities—indeed, the most famous and influential critics in
America—you will find the film particularly compelling and often hilarious.
Theirs was a highly complex relationship, on and off the air. I won’t spoil the
movie’s juicier tidbits, but suffice it to say that their bickering and
personal insults were not contrived. Others tried to imitate them, to no avail;
even Roger couldn’t reinvent the chemistry he had on camera with Gene Siskel.
Who could have predicted that both their lives would be cut short?
As I indicated in my column the other day, the movie is also
a love story: when Roger met his future wife Chaz his life changed for the
better. They were great partners, in every sense of that term, and she helped
him through a decade of health travails that would have tested Job himself.
Life Itself was
the name of Ebert’s autobiography, and it’s a particularly apt title for a
movie that deals, ultimately, with mortality. It’s not always easy to watch, but
it’s impossible to forget.