Steve James’ latest documentary Life Itself is heartfelt look at one of the world’s most public and famous movie critics, Roger Ebert. A movie about a man who loved movies so much he practically lived inside them.
James, whose previous credits Hoop Dreams (1994) and The Interrupters (2011), owes a great deal to Ebert. Ebert, alongside his on-camera companion, Gene Siskel, championed James’ Hoop Dreams—admonishing the Oscars for failing to nominate Hoop Dreams for not only Best Documentary, but Best Picture—practically put James on the map. Prior to starting photography, Ebert asked James to, “Film the man, not the legend” which is precisely what James does. James brings his searing eye to Ebert’s life and work as he has to previous documentaries and even though Ebert comes off looking good in his own movie, he is no saint. James does not spare Ebert’s giant ego, nor is his sexual appetite glossed over. James delves deep into Ebert’s days as an alcoholic-journalist who believed that there was some mythological Chicago Newspaperman who worked all day, drank all night, and was never without a great story. Ebert surrounded himself with people like-minded and haunted the grand bar top of O’Rourke’s in Chicago, but no matter how many people loved to drink with him, he always went home with a crushing amount of loneliness. Like most addicts, Ebert kept trying to push away that loneliness with the bottle, but thankfully he beat the bottle before the bottle beat him. Ebert took his last drink in 1979, joined AA and never looked back.
Life Itself contains interviews with some of the many filmmakers that Ebert loved and championed. Filmmakers like Ramin Bahrani, Werner Herzog and Errol Morris. Two in particular, Ava DuVernay and Martin Scorsese (who also functioned as one of the executive producers), show the power that a critic holds and what positive reinforcement really means. Both of these stories touch very deeply. DuVernay’s in particular show how important tastemakers and gatekeepers are. Thankfully, Ebert took his position very seriously. Making a movie is a way of bearing one’s soul, an offering that Ebert never took lightly. It showed in his writing and it shows on the faces of those interviewed, gleefully lining up to be interviewed for this project. It is an important point: people in this position can make a difference.
Life Itself occasionally gets stifled by the reporting and fails to rise above a well produced PBS or HBO documentary, which is rare for James whose documentaries dispense with information in favor of what Werner Herzog called “ecstatic truth”. James was a close friend of Ebert and owed him his entire career, and for that, I will forgive him for pulling his punches slightly. It is a minor point of contention.
Life Itself is the ability to spend two hours with Roger Ebert, and it is two hours well spent. There are lite moments, humorous moments, dark moments and difficult moments (watching a human being deteriorate is never easy). These are the moments that when brought together give an idea of life itself. Roger Ebert lived a good life and his story makes for a good movie. I think he would have like it, even if it weren’t about him.