Film Criticism has always been viewed as a profession where writers gave their deeply rooted opinions on the films released each year. The attitude toward the profession of criticism shifted in the 1970’s when Siskel and Ebert began their television show Sneak Previews. Life Itself is about the latter of the pairing Roger Ebert. Life Itself does something quite unique for a documentary. The film tackles the cancer fight Ebert faced at the end of his life and then throughout the film explores the writer’s past leading to his last days as a critic and an individual.
Steve James, documentarian of Hoop Dreams was chosen to document Roger Ebert’s final days and to sum up his life as a whole. The toughest part about doing a documentary is being sensitive to your subject. The level of tact when addressing Ebert’s faults as a person is on display often throughout the film. The sensitivity is shown most clear when interviewees are discussing Ebert’s struggle in his early life with alcoholism. People talked about where he would spend his time drinking but only once discussed a visible change in Ebert due to his consumption of alcohol. I found the discussion about where he would spend his time drinking to be one of the most fascinating moment in the documentary because it gave audiences a glimpse about Ebert outside of work.
Another unique thing that can be gleamed from watching Life Itself is learning Ebert’s personality as a person who was very much a fighter. He could take an insult and dish it back to you with equal fervor. Audiences also got to learn about the marriage between Roger and Chaz Ebert. The dynamic between them is centered on courage and hope. These two qualities came into being when they met for the first time in alcoholics anonymous and that to me was the most shocking fact that I heard in the documentary. I love the fact that Chaz Ebert fought so extremely hard for her husband and I can’t even begin to imagine what having to let go of that love must feel like. The ultimate showing of courage is knowing you have no control over an outcome and facing it with every shred of humanity and courage you can. This is what the Ebert’s do as an individuals and as a couple when confronted with the idea that one must leave the other to another plane of existence.
The other relationship that takes center stage is the relationship between Siskel and Ebert. The fact that both newspaper men disliked each other because they came from two different papers in the same city did not surprise me. I already knew of the early rivalry of the two critics. What was interesting to learn for me was that Gene Siskel was very much an extrovert and a partier while Roger much preferred to spend time in his local pub. The most touching moment of the entire film has to be the idea that because of Siskel’s brain cancer diagnosis and subsequent death Ebert decided he would be completely transparent about his cancer struggle. I love the fact that Siskel’s death highlighted just how deep a friendship the two had formed after working almost 30 years together.
The saddest moment of the film that both moved and angered me as an individual was the details of Ebert’s passing. Arguably the biggest reveal of the entire film is that Ebert signed a DNR or not to be revived if he fell ill in his final days. This is something I can understand because he needed to not suffer any longer and I’m especially empathetic because it was his last individual decision.
Ebert and Life Itself can be summed up in this simple sentence. The life of a hard working news man who loved movies and the people who viewed them. Personally I’m thankful for all he provided me with in terms of knowledge and advice. He was a man who showed empathy when little of that exists in today’s world. Movies were his life and passion but love and consideration of others is what he stood for. Thumbs up for a life well lived. See this one at the movies.