***1/2 (out of four)
As a Chicago film critic and fellow University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign alumnus, it almost goes without saying that my review of “Life Itself,” acclaimed documentarian Steve James’ (“Hoop Dreams”) movie about Roger Ebert’s life that shares a title with the late film critic’s memoir, could never be unbiased. That the documentary about this man features a Chicagoan picking up a copy of RedEye featuring Ebert on the cover and my column about him inside is almost more than I can handle.
Of course I didn’t always agree with him. Journalists, and particularly critics, can be, in Ebert’s own words, “tactless, egotistical, merciless and a showboat.” But Ebert’s influence went beyond opinion, and “Life Itself” will never be regarded solely as a story about movies.
Five months before Ebert’s death in April 2013, James met with him to discuss making a film. The next day, the critic, who hadn’t spoken, eaten or drank since his 2006 surgery for thyroid cancer, went into the hospital and learned he had a hairline fracture of the femur. “Life Itself” features much footage of Ebert in a hospital bed or at the Rehabilitation Institute of Chicago. He wanted this. “I’m happy we got a great thing that nobody ever sees: suction!” Ebert emailed James after the filmmaker captured footage of a procedure not often seen in movies. Later, when Ebert’s cancer metastasized, he told James that despite Ebert’s wife Chaz’s discomfort with sharing the news, “It would be a major lapse to have a documentary that doesn’t contain the full reality.”
How wonderful for a documentary to put such value in honesty. For the first time, Chaz reveals that she and her husband met in an AA meeting. The film also features a moment on “The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson” when Ebert pans “Three Amigos” even though Chevy Chase is sitting right next to him. The on-set “Siskel and Ebert” bickering and competition is the stuff of legend, even when the cameras weren’t rolling. The two icons for film criticism collided under an umbrella of ego and resentment, respect and love, and James shows how Siskel’s handling of terminal cancer influenced Ebert’s own, slower departure.
Mild omissions: There’s more to examine and discuss about the notion of a possible conflict of interest when a critic befriends an artist. “Life Itself” doesn’t really get a perspective on that from Ebert, who became close to filmmakers including Martin Scorsese, Werner Herzog and Ramin Bahrani. (This also may factor into the doc itself, as James likely didn’t want to do too much with statements about Ebert’s saltier days.) The film also could have made more of Ebert’s astonishingly prolific blogging once he embraced that outlet for his voice.
These are small complaints. “Life Itself” is full of courage but not afraid of weakness. It shows how with only two choices, it seems so easy for a movie to get a thumbs up, or for someone in pain to give one. It isn’t.
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