'Life Itself' recounts the surprising and entertaining life of world-renowned film critic and social commentator Roger Ebert - a story that's by turns personal, wistful, funny, painful, and transcendent. The film explores the impact and legacy of Roger Ebert's life: from his Pulitzer Prize-winning film criticism and his nearly quarter-century run with Gene Siskel on their review show, to becoming one of the country's most influential cultural voices, and finally to Roger's inspiring battles with cancer and the resulting physical disability - how he literally and symbolically put a new face on the disease and continued to be a cultural force despite it. Written by
The layers make it work as we see the person, the work, the profession, and ultimately, the human
Perhaps it is hard to believe given one of the things I choose to do as a pastime, but I have never really read any of Ebert's film criticism, never seen his show with Siskel, and was not one of his many followers on Twitter. That I am British and did all my pre-20's without internet and with only 4 channels on the TV is part of this, but whatever the reason I don't follow his work. It speaks to his impact then, that I still know his name, still know what he is famous for, and know his various mannerisms and the like. Despite not having an emotional hook in this film, I decided to watch it mostly because I didn't know much about him.
What you find is a more of a tribute than it is documentary although it is both. The film is structured around email interviews and in-treatment footage of Ebert, along with excerpts from his book which are delivered in narration; we also get contributions from those that knew him or worked with him. Considered what a star- filled, sentimental affair this could have been, it is to the film's credit that it builds such an honest but yet affection picture of the man and of his work. We get the background of him as a writer, of him as a person, of his failings, difficulties, and what made people like and love him; all of this is well presented and I particularly liked that the film drew on some smaller names from film, and colleagues, and friends rather than the bigger names it almost certainly could have leveraged in front of a camera for some glib generalities.
I was surprised by how touching this was. Not only did we get an overview of a career, but we also get to see a person and a person who we can see is at the end of his life and certainly knows it. I guess this position is part of the reason the film is touching, but also part of the reason that Ebert himself is so reflective and the commentary so honest. In addition to this it is a tribute to his craft, and recognition that he did come from a different era from the one now where any idiot with an internet connection can spout off about films (hi!) but that he also had a role in popularizing criticism and making it more accessible although the film also allows alternative opinions on his work to be in here too.
Ultimately the film stands as a touching tribute to an individual person, his work, and his profession as a whole. These layers make it much more than the vanity piece it could have been; they make it much more than the sentimental tribute it could have been, or even the celebrity-filled emptiness that would have been a too-easy way to go. Ebert and his family come off wonderfully and the film does well to interest the viewer, and move the viewer even if you know little or nothing of Ebert, there is life here, and that is what makes it worth seeing.
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