You don’t have to be a movie critic, or even particularly interested in movies, to be touched and enthralled by the documentary “Life Itself,” a beautifully paced tribute to a life well-lived. Based on his memoir of the same name, it’s the story of Roger Ebert, who died last year at 70 after a long battle with cancer. Chicagoans knew him for decades as the movie critic of the Sun-Times; the rest of us knew him, from the late 1970s on, as the larger, bespectacled half of an agreeably cantankerous critic duo on a movie-review TV show.
When he had to leave television in 2006 due to his illness (repeated disfiguring surgeries left him unable to speak), Ebert reinvented himself as a robust, prolific online presence; blogging, tweeting, commenting, engaging with readers on topics that ranged far beyond the movies. “When I am writing, my problems become invisible,” he wrote in an interview in 2010, “and I am the same person I always was.”
“Life Itself,” directed by Steve James (“Hoop Dreams”), introduces us to that person, so vividly that you miss him anew when the film is done. It’s the story of a kid growing up in working-class Champaign, Ill., who wanted to be a reporter so badly that he wrote a weekly newspaper in his basement and solemnly delivered it to the neighbors “as if it existed independently of me.” It’s the story of a lifelong newspaperman who spent his entire career at one paper, resisting all calls to move to a more prestigious publication or to focus entirely on television, and who quickly found that watching and writing about movies fed his soul. (“The movies are like a machine that generates empathy,” he says in the documentary, in a long-ago recording; watching movies, he believed wholeheartedly, helped us to understand each other.) It’s a love story, about a man who didn’t marry until he was 50 (he used to date “gold diggers, opportunists or psychos,” a friend cheerily tells us in the film), but who found bliss in middle age with his beloved, pillar-of-strength wife, Chaz.
Ebert was no saint, and “Life Itself” doesn’t make him one; we’re given enjoyably gossipy (and video) evidence that he and his screen co-host Gene Siskel had a “radioactive” relationship. But the film bursts with detail and affectionate witness to a life full of the things he loved: movies, books, long walks with family, travel, coffee in diners, friends. And it unflinchingly looks at his last months. Ebert vowed, after Siskel’s death in 1999 (his colleague hadn’t discussed his brain tumor), that he would never hide an illness, and James’ camera follows him through hospital procedures, a difficult journey home, Chaz’s tears on realizing that he’s becoming unable to fight on, and his online “voice” as it fades away to silence.
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“I’ll see you at the movies,” were the final public words Ebert wrote, on his blog, just days before he died. For a lot of us, he’s still there, always.
Moira Macdonald: 206-464-2725 or firstname.lastname@example.org