Review: Life Itself (2014)

Life Itself - 2014 - 1

Director: Steve James
Screenwriter: Steve James
Runtime: 120 min // Certificate: 15


Whenever I finish watching a classic movie, one of the first things I do once I’ve jotted down my own thoughts is check out Roger Ebert’s review to see whether or not we’re on the same page. Half the time we aren’t, but I nonetheless always come away from the experience with a new perspective and an envious appreciation for the man’s extraordinary passion for and knowledge of cinema.

Now, as someone who grew up in the UK, my only real experience of Ebert’s work is through his writing. I’ve caught a few snippets of “Siskel & Ebert”, the show he co-hosted with Gene Siskel for many years, on YouTube, but unlike people like Mark Kermode or Danny Leigh, Ebert is very much a man whose thoughts I devour off the page rather than the screen. Despite this – or perhaps because of it – I felt a genuine sadness when news of his death surfaced in April of last year as it meant that the intellectual rigour and dedication with which he approached and analysed cinema was from that moment on purely archival. Sure, I could still read and vehemently disagree with his thoughts on classic movies (never has so great and thoughtful a critic been as catastrophically misguided as when Ebert launched a scathing assault on David Lynch’s Blue Velvet…), but never again would I or anyone else get to hear his thoughts on the state of modern cinema or the evolution of online movie criticism, and that’s a genuine shame.

Life Itself, Steve James’ biographical documentary filmed in the final years of Ebert’s life, offers some minor solace to those of us longing to hear just a bit more from Ebert, however, as it gives us what is unquestionably the most intimate and in-depth look at his life as a journalist, a film critic and, in his later years, a fierce advocate for social justice and valiant fighter in his battle against cancer we’re ever likely to see. Based partly on Ebert’s own memoirs of the same name, James’ film offers a chronological look at Ebert’s life, interspersed with input from a wide variety of “talking heads” and some detailed contributions from Ebert himself who, despite spending the majority of his final years in a hospital bed, is determined to tell his story as honestly and as personally as he can. Everything from his earlier career as a Pulitzer Prize winning journalist to his almost 50-year career as a movie critic and one-time movie writer (if ever you needed proof that movie critics could never do the job they’re actually critiquing, just check out Ebert’s Beyond the Valley of the Dolls…) is covered, and though it never feels as though James has unearthed anything ground-breaking or shocking, his love and respect for Ebert makes for a richly rewarding documentary, not to mention one that is informative and full of relevant and enlightening contributions from some of the people who knew Ebert best.

The film’s greatest strength, however, rests not in its analysis of Ebert’s life but in its careful and heartfelt look at Chaz, Ebert’s devoted wife and carer of 21 years. James respects the boundaries of his main subjects, though both Roger and Chaz are comfortable to allow him to film them at their most vulnerable, which makes for a viewing experience that far exceeds simple biography. At its heart, this isn’t so much a film about Ebert as it is a film about, well, “life itself”. It shows one man’s struggle to survive, honouring his vast achievements and truthfully acknowledging his failings in the process and doing so via the medium of a story about love, friendship and a man who always stuck to his principles and his beliefs, even when it wasn’t the most popular thing to do.

For someone with an interest in film criticism, Ebert is a personal hero of mine. I didn’t always agree with him, but I cannot fault his dedication to his work nor his defence of criticism as a whole in the internet-age, when popular opinion holds that the form is in its death throes. Life Itself stands as a fitting tribute to the man’s legacy, and while it might not have a broad appeal to those with no knowledge of his life or work, anyone with an interest in Ebert could do far worse than sitting down to watch this affectionate take on his hugely accomplished life.