Roger Ebert is one of those rare public figures that i wish i'd had a chance to meet. Whenever i would read one of his reviews i would feel almost as though i did know him, as though we'd just watched the movie together and were discussing it over a cup of coffee afterward. That's the kind of writer he was: personal, clear, entertaining, insightful.
There was so much about him that i admired: not just his wonderful reviews, but also his absolute and democratic love of movies, his openness about his alcoholism, his refusal to accept defeat when confronted with a level of illness that would send most of us into utter despair. And yet, i was a bit hesitant about seeing Steve James's documentary Life Itself. I was a little afraid that it would be a simple praise-piece. How could it be otherwise? After all, Roger had died just over a year ago after a very public struggle with an especially virulent form of cancer; and, although it is a cliche to describe someone's struggle with cancer as "brave," Roger Ebert had been brave, incomparably brave in confronting his illness, and in remaining in the public eye after surgery had drastically changed his appearance. And he'd been both brilliant in his embrace of new technologies that gave him a way of continuing to share his thoughts on the movies and generous in providing a forum for young critics to reach a wider audience and continue the work he had begun.
Of course, i should have known that Steve James would not direct a puff-piece, that like his classic, Hoop Dreams (1994), this would be a complex picture of a man who could be an avuncular movie reviewer or a competitive pain in the ass. Life Itself is a loving look into the life of this man whom, on one level, we all knew so well. Perhaps because i am no longer young myself, i was especially moved by the way in which the film makes us reflect on what it means to reach the end of a life well-lived. And by "well-lived" i do not mean perfect, for Roger Ebert was anything but. He was, as we all are, a work in progress--but oh what he managed to accomplish in the course of that life!
The camera is unflinching in capturing some of the details of Ebert's final months, and it is unflinching in large part because that seems to be what Roger wanted. We watch uncomfortably as he receives nourishment through a tube in his throat: it is excruciating to watch, because it was clearly excruciating for him to endure. But endure he did, for as long as he could. And he let the camera catch his pain, because that too is part of life. And he kept working. That is perhaps what amazes me most: he never stopped. When his distinctive midwestern voice was stilled, he found new ways to continue sharing his thoughts on the movies with his audience. Even his signature "thumbs-up" gesture took on new and more poignant significance as it became a more general way for him to communicate and a symbol of his enduring optimism.
Ebert's life wasn't just reviewing movies, and the film does a fine job of capturing the complexities of his relationships with other people, from his often contentious professional partnership with the late Gene Siskel to the friendship he shared with directors like Werner Herzog and Rahmin Bahrani. But most touching are the scenes between Ebert and his wife Chaz and the glimpses they offer of a life filled with love, mutual understanding, and a sense of two people who both knew and appreciated how lucky they were to have found each other and shared their lives.
When the end credits of Life Itself began to roll, i found myself unable to leave the theater because i couldn't stop the tears from rolling down my face. They weren't sad tears, despite the pain and debilitating surgeries that Roger Ebert endured and the emotional pain that was so clearly written on Chaz's face as her beloved husband struggled through his final illness. They were instead tears of appreciation for this reminder of -- as the title says -- life itself, in all its beauty and pain, its struggles and accomplishments.