Remember when film criticism relied upon a simple “Thumbs up” or “Thumbs down”? This was an extraordinarily powerful way to gauge a movie’s quality and it was through this method that film critics and journalists ever since have adapted to their own ways of judging cinema. Roger Ebert was one of the pioneers of the “Thumbs up” approach and he was not just a talented writer and critic but a force for good in American pop culture. His intelligence and supreme wit have made him a cultural icon and the new documentary Life Itself beautifully sums up the man’s life.
Life Itself plays out more like a cinematic feature than a documentary. It is the true story of a man who seemed to have an almost unlimited supply of intelligence. The film gives a very relaxed timeline of Ebert’s rise to prominence from his early college days at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign up until his final days, battling with jaw cancer. If you never knew the man’s story and have been curious about Mr. Ebert, then Life Itself is the perfect film for you. The film is a biographical account and a compelling one at that. Like most documentaries, it is peppered with interviews, photos, and archival footage. Ebert lived a rich, colorful life and Life Itself tells his story beautifully. Adapted from Ebert’s memoir of the same name, Life Itself spans Ebert’s seven decades on Earth, from his extensive film criticism with the Chicago Sun-Times to his on-camera arguments with Gene Siskel At the Movies to his more tender moments at home with his wife Chaz.
Film critics around the globe and aspiring writers should really check out Life Itself. It is an inspiring film which sheds light on a man many know just for his thumbs. With a natural pace that makes the viewer feel at ease, Life Itself is as honest as it gets. Ebert wasn’t a political juggernaut or a despised villain; he was a writer, a journalist, a man who saw the world in a simple, honest way. His voice was heard through his writing, his TV shows, and through Chaz, who stood with him every step of the way.
Directed by Steve James (Hoop Dreams and executive produced by Steven Zaillian (Schindler’s List, Awakenings, Gangs of New York, Martin Scorsese, and Chicago Sun-Times investor Michael W. Ferro, Jr., Life Itself certainly had a wealth of support behind its production.
The screening I attended was held at the famed Museum of the Moving Image in Astoria, Queens, NY. It was a truly special evening, not only because Life Itself was being screened but because there was a very illuminating post-screening Q&A featuring Chaz Ebert, film critic Scott Foundras, and filmmaker Ramin Bahrani. All three of these guests were profoundly touched by Mr. Ebert, and their stories about the man were truly great. Chief Curator of the museum David Schwartz moderated the Q&A and the evening was nothing short of amazing.
From his early days as nerdy smart aleck to his final days at home as a disabled Tweeter, Roger Ebert left behind a legacy that few will ever match. He won the Pulitzer Prize for Criticism in 1975 and is perhaps, the most well-known film critic of all time. He was extremely smart and gifted and his talent shone brilliantly in every medium he tackled, whether it be print, broadcast, or the internet. Like its title, Life Itself is beautiful, tragic, and filled to the brim with immense heart.