I might have just watched the greatest documentary film of all time. Life Itself doesn’t tell the story of great obstacles facing humanity, or of the awe-inspiring limits of the human spirit. It doesn’t tell of great wars or historical milestones that changed our world. Instead, Life Itself tells the story of one man who made what I am doing right now entirely possible. Roger Ebert was the greatest film critic to ever live, and I have to make this review slightly personal – not only do I owe Roger my endless appreciation for this, my enthusiasm for writing about film, but I hold him entirely accountable for my love of cinema in general. The first legitimate film reviews I ever read were written by him. Me, the strange little twelve-year-old, captivated by the sarcastic and sardonic wit, and immense intelligence of this man who seemed to have no bigger passion in the world than film. Roger Ebert was a titan of cinema, and even though he didn’t make cinema, he is as much a part of film history as any director, screenwriter, producer or actor, and thus deserved his story to be told. I expected nothing but the best for Roger, and Steve James’ exquisite documentary that tells Roger’s story in the most beautiful and poignant way.
I adore documentary films – the harsh truths they tell are always so honest, so revealing and so painfully real. Life Itself is not like any documentary film I have ever seen, especially not a documentary film that also serves as a memorial for a public figure. Instead of having others share the memories of the dearly deceased, and having them tell the story, Life Itself employs something both unique and brilliant – Roger Ebert himself tells his own story, and on so many different levels. Archival footage shows us Roger’s early life and career, footage filmed for the documentary show us a man radically different in appearance and approach, and through voiceover, we hear Roger’s own words taken directly out of his memoirs of the same name (I must praise Stephen Stanton, who did a truly convincing impression of Roger through the voiceover segments, and brought to life Roger’s inner thoughts expressed in the memoir in a way that came very close to giving voice to the then-voiceless Roger). Steve James, who is in no uncertain terms a documentary genius, knows the limits of how much he needs to tell the story. We only see him briefly near the beginning, and his contributions to Roger’s story are only there when it is necessary – he puts the power of this amazing story squarely in the hands of Roger and his closest friends and family members. This way, Life Itself becomes less about the movie icon Roger Ebert, and instead serves as a portrait of the artist and truly human Roger.
It is a dreadfully thin line to walk when describing this film as one of the greatest documentary films of all time, as one needs to compare it to more austere and serious historical documentary films that undoubtedly tell much more historically relevant stories. However, like all the greatest documentaries of all time, Life Itself is truly very difficult to watch. The spectre of Roger’s death looms throughout the film, and whether we see his golly exploits as the youngest film critic in America, to his last days as a physically voiceless but still very strong writer, we know what is coming, and to see Roger going through what he had to was absolutely harrowing. Even if he appeared in great spirits throughout his turmoil with cancer, it still made it very difficult to watch, because it felt like we were watching the final testament of a family member. It is this unflinchingly honest portrayal of Roger’s entire life, from beginning to end, that makes this film so difficult. Which is why it has a perfect score, and why it is a brilliant film.
It would’ve been so easy to make a passe E! True Hollywood Story-type film about Roger, showing only scandal to scandal, and many Hollywood documentaries follow that mould. James tells the full story, and of course, when you have someone as gloriously opinionated and contentious as Roger Ebert, there will be drama. The tense relationship between Roger and longtime film partner Gene Siskel is absolutely dramatic and riveting. However difficult their relationship was, the film does show that even fighting like cats and dogs can result in undying respect for the other person, and Ebert and Siskel were just that. However, the drama aside, the film finds its voice in the smaller moments – the moments such as seeing Roger interacting with his grandchildren, or his efforts to try and walk again while being rehabilitated after a complication from his disease, or his wedding to his soul-mate, Chaz Ebert. The most poignant moments of all, naturally, occur after Roger shuffled off this mortal coil. I implore anyone to watch the final ten minutes of this film and not feel something very close to intense tears. Chaz’s description of Roger’s final moments, or the outpouring of sadness from people all around the world, to the the image of Roger’s memorial service, where the entire audience pays tribute with Roger’s iconic “thumbs up” gesture.
I could choose to be very coy here and say Life Itself brought a tear to my eye, but that would be a lie – this film had me weeping, reaching for the tissues. It may seem strange to admit this, but it was such a touching and emotional film, and for someone who has been inspired by Roger Ebert, as undoubtedly legions of people all around the world have, seeing this story told touched parts of us that no film ever touched before. However, it seems like I am making this film out to be a very sad, emotional film. To only describe it as sad would be forgetting that this is also a brilliantly funny documentary. Roger was a man of great wit and deep humor. There are moments throughout this film that are truly hilarious, whether it is his outtakes where he argues with Gene Siskel, or even his days in hospital near the end, where he keeps his sense of humor right up until the end. Life Itself is an emotional rollercoaster that has many twists and turns, and each one makes you feel something completely different.
I could go on for hours and hours – but I know that Roger himself hated verbosity, and it would be unfair to expose you to my insane love and admiration for Roger. To me, as evident throughout this piece, he was never “Mr. Ebert” – he was always “Roger” – the man whose opinion mattered most. Everyone assures themselves that critics are just there to trash or praise, and they serve no other purpose. Roger was different. Roger was a man whose opinion mattered. If he loved your film, it meant the world. If he hated your film, at least it will exist in the world of film criticism as receiving one of his trademark thrashings – receiving bad reviews from Roger was strangely humbling. That is what this film shows, most of all – a man who loved films, good or bad, and would have no qualms with putting as much work into a film he hated as a film he loved. That is what set him apart, and Life Itself shows an amazing portrait of Roger, in his own words, and through the testimonies of those who he was closest to.
Life Itself is a masterpiece. There is no other way to say it. It is sad, funny, poignant and highly emotional. It tells an honest and revealing story about the greatest film critic of all time, and one that went beyond being a film critic and became a cinema icon of his own. It is a riveting, exciting and humbling documentary, and stands as one of the greatest cinematic achievements I’ve ever seen. Giving it a perfect score may seem a big gratitous – there is no such thing as perfection, as Roger would agree. In fact, he’d probably disagree with this review and find dozens of faults in his own documentary to criticize. That was the brilliance of Roger Ebert, and, well I don’t know how to finish this review, so I’ll finish it with the last words that Roger ever wrote:
So on this day of reflection I say again, thank you for going on this journey with me. I’ll see you at the movies.
Thank you, Roger.