Roger Ebert’s death signaled the end to a specific type of film critic. He was a towering figure who achieved a measure of celebrity as big as the filmmakers and actors that he critiqued. Steve James’ Life Itself peers into the last months of Ebert’s life as he contends with his debilitating cancer - one loses count as to the number of times the critic is resubmitted into intensive care. The countless lives he touched through his criticism and personal life are brought into the fold - from crucial television producers and fledgling filmmakers who cite Ebert for their personal success. To paraphrase something from Ebert’s review of Errol Morris’ Gates of Heaven (one of the numerous films spotlighted in this documentary): all I know is that Life Itself is about a lot more than a film critic.
James’ approach is a simple though resolutely effective one. He uses Ebert’s physical decay of the present as a narrative benchmark as he explores the critic’s formative years. Ebert’s modest childhood led him to the University of Illinois at Champaign-Urbana, whereby he became the editor of the college newspaper. Already a formidable writer at an early age, Ebert would be thrown into the world of film criticism. Having covered pressing political concerns of the early 60s through his early journalism days, his appointment as the Chicago Sun Times’ lead film critic was a random stroke of luck; a means to an end of filling a position.
James glosses over the seedier aspects of Ebert’s life as anecdotes of nostalgic inconsequence (Ebert’s alcoholism is only briefly touched upon), yet it’s in James’ return to Ebert’s present day condition that we’re offered a sense of striking poignancy. The critic’s dedication to his craft remains evident through his final days, where he blogs and submits reviews with primed efficiency. Only when his hands begin to swell does the critic begin to yield to his disease.
It’s difficult to imagine anyone other than James undertaking this film. With films like Hoop Dreams, Stevie, The Interrupters, and Head Games, James has established himself as being a documentary filmmaker capable of analyzing his subject matter within a macro and micro lens. His films speak to the human spirit, whereby the extenuating social or physical circumstances of his subjects test one’s capacities - whether they be spiritual or mental. Life Itself observes Ebert as a man of unrivaled passion for his craft yet tested to his limits to express that passion. The life he led may possess a specificity that requires empathy to understand, but the fundamental questions he posits are universal in nature: questions on relationships, our capacity to express thoughts, and how one tackles the inevitability of death.
Following in the wake of Hoop Dreams and The Interrupters, James proves to be an indispensable Chicago treasure. Living in Oak Park, the director affords Chicago an appropriate alien perspective to the city’s more affluent north side while never giving into subjectivity. As he treated the south side of the city in The Interrupters, he treats the north with an equal degree of affection and reserve.
Ebert had a voice that most film critics, including myself, could only hope to achieve. But it was a voice that required decades of honing and recalibrating. It took a lot of work to get where he was, and behind him he leaves a legacy that is a daunting challenge to live up to. He will be the critic that most people, for better or worse, will look to compare another to. But like any man, he was flawed. And Life Itself explores how a flawed man comes to grip with his mortality and tries his best to fuel his life with his passions.