I tried to start writing this review about twelve times over the past four days. It’s hard to know where to begin, because it’s a film that reached me on so many personal levels; as a lover of films, a proponent of independent cinema, I feel … No, that’s not how I’ll start this.
Life Itself is a documentary about the life and final days of Roger Ebert, celebrated film critic for the Chicago Sun-Times, author, screenwriter, Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist, and erstwhile bon vivant. Directed by Steve James (Hoop Dreams), it shares its title with Ebert’s 2011 memoir, and while it covers a lot of the same ground as the book, the film also picks up where Ebert left off – dealing with, among other things, the ravages of the countless surgeries Ebert endured in order to bring the jigsaw puzzle of his face back to what it looked like on the box.
The film starts out with a nice in-depth look at the chubby cub reporter and altar boy who grew up wanting so badly to be a newsman that, as a young teen, he started his own newspaper, which he also delivered to the neighbors. From there, he wrote for his college (University of Illinois at Urbana) newspaper. He found himself buried in his doctoral work at the University of Chicago and the job he had taken as a reporter for the Chicago Sun-Times to help pay for his doctorate, and decided to put his doctorate on hold in order to devote more attention to his work as a movie critic.
Throughout the documentary, we are shown Ebert in many versions throughout the ensuing years – partier, two-fisted drinker, pugnacious adversary, recovering alcoholic, sparring partner for Gene Siskel, husband, step-father, and finally cancer patient. All of these pictures of Ebert are fleshed out through anecdotes and reminiscences from former colleagues, friends, family, and most notably, his wife Chaz.
Roger’s own reminiscences are provided through excerpts from his memoir. One excellent device the director adopts is using Roger’s robotic synthesized voice during the real-time events of the movie, and employing “voicematch actor” Stephen Stanton for the narration. Stanton was a brilliant find – a man capable of mimicking Ebert’s Midwest voice and cadence so perfectly, I initially wondered how the hell Ebert’s vocal chords were restored for these pieces of the film.
Ebert’s battles with cancer of the thyroid and salivary glands, and the subsequent loss of his lower jaw (and, consequently, his ability to speak, eat, or drink) have already been fairly well-documented, but Ebert allows director James to force us to look at the startling exterior. Seeing the 2013 version of Ebert’s face filling the screen for the first time in the theater left many of us reflexively gasping or unintentionally whispering a soft “oh my God” into our popcorn. We are shown a brutally long shot of Roger’s throat being suctioned clean after a feeding, which appears to be agonizing for the patient. After the technician has finished the procedure, which Ebert obviously must endure many times a day, we try to settle back into our seats, having found ourselves somehow clenching our entire bodies into fists. Ebert looks through the camera at James, indicating that he is proud to have had a part in committing that torture to film. Roger’s good friend Bill Nack noted that “Roger was not just the chief character and star of the movie that was his life, he was also the director.”
Seeing Ebert in this way, victim of the constant indignity of his boneless lower jaw lying agape, at times looking all the world like a startled puppet: it’s a good starting point for trying to allow the audience to more fully comprehend how much Ebert had suffered over the 12 years since his cancer was detected, and how, in spite of that, he was able to dedicate his time and efforts to mentoring young directors and young writers, all the while maintaining his wit and charm and love for his wife Chaz, and for life itself.
It’s a solid two hours, none of it wasted on fluff. Because the time flies so quickly during the viewing, this viewer was hoping for more – there were still missing elements unfilled, Ebert’s relationship with Siskel’s “replacement” Roeper (who inexplicably never appears in the film) for just one example. When it was over, I felt happy to hear many other pieces I never knew, and although I felt I had lost an old friend all over again, I felt I had enjoyed a celebration rather than a two-hour eulogy. It’s a movie that I would highly recommend to any lover of cinema, and I would suggest that a perfect gift for a film lover would be the DVD of this documentary, packaged with the memoir.