It is unlikely that anyone ever got used to seeing Roger Ebert’s face at the end of his life. Roger had such a distinct jaw, that perfect rectangle, and it seems to cruel to have robbed him of it for the last years of his life. Acclaimed Chicagoland documentarian Steve James has no qualms about showing his audience what Roger has become in his new film Life Itself (the name taken from Ebert’s autobiography), and it can be a disarming, and often distressing scene. Confined to a hospital bed or rehab facility, his neck and throat bandaged with a flap of loose skin where his chin used to be, it is a pitiable vision of a man who can accurately be described as a titan of the critical community, film or otherwise. It has been over a year since complications from cancer took Roger from this world, and it seems only fitting to immortalize him via the medium to which he dedicated his life.
James was the only director who could do this. Roger’s effusive praise for Hoop Dreams, the 1994 masterpiece of a documentary about Chicago kids with visions of the NBA, is legend, and one could imagine how tickled he must have been at the idea of this man putting his life on the silver screen. Their relationship in Roger’s later years is one of two spines of Life Itself; as Roger’s background is intercut with scenes of his 2013 struggles that would soon end his time on Earth. Those flickers of his history are overlaid with excerpts from his memoir, narrated in his own voice, as the story of this goliath of the industry unfurls. Much of the film’s two hours is spent on his battles with alcohol as the firebrand critic for the Sun Times, transitioning into the controversial, combatative, yet ultimately fruitful collaboration/war with Gene Siskel At the Movies. Through it all, the camera returns to Roger in his hospital room, interacting with James and his wife Chaz and his family. His ability to smile is hindered by the lack of a jaw, but he manages it just the same. The fire in his eyes makes it clear that, for all of the pain and the rehab and the complications and the disfigurement, his mind is as engaged as it has ever been.
It is a quandary, critiquing a film about the world’s greatest, or at least most famous, film critic. His influence on popular culture cannot be denied, and the way he brought criticism into the mainstream birthed forward legions of young critics eager to share their views on this populist medium, and even more so to revel in the power of the cinema to transport the soul. His legendary line from his star dedication at the Chicago Theater in 2005 (“the movies are like a machine that generates empathy”) opens Life Itself, and is certainly its mission statement. James succeeds in his mission, though that is not a particularly difficult assignment considering the giant-sized personality of his subject. The editing is accomplished and clear, motoring along through Roger’s life without bogging the film down in minutiae. It does not blindly lionize the man, equally considering his darker moments with his lighter ones. Putting the majority of the biography in Roger’s own words and voice is a deceptively powerful choice. Of course, Roger was a wizard with words, and few could be as lyrical about his own life as he could, but that voice, the voice that was robbed of him when his jaw was robbed of him, does more to evoke a bygone era than millions of feet of archival footage.
Life Itself, when considered as a whole, does not amount to all that much more than a standard biographical documentary with its voice-over narration, archival footage and its talking head interviews. This is no knock against James; it is indeed exactly what the project should have been, and it works well for a reason. There could have been much worse in less deft hands, a gaudy hagiography whitewashing any negativity from his battles with Siskel or other critics or the bottle. James shows the confidence to show Roger for what he was: a man of limitless passion and infinite talent who spent his life excelling at what he cared about most, even when that passion spilled over into something a little less than kind. Roger’s legacy is ironclad, and would have been ironclad regardless of the existence of this film. Life Itself is about Roger, but it is more than that. It is a rumination on the power of cinema and how the looming specter of death cannot shatter the strongest of wills.