The opening scene in Steve James’ (Hoop Dreams) Life Itself, a documentary about the life of film critic Roger Ebert, is tough to take. Ebert, perhaps the most renowned film critic in the world, has been hit hard with thyroid cancer. He no longer has a lower jaw and he’s lost the ability to speak (he types into a computer that then translates what he’s written). Nurses have to occasionally suction out the stuff that gets lodged in his lower throat — the process looks exceedingly painful and Ebert often puts on some music to help him deal with the pain. Of course, the film doesn’t solely focus on the present (James filmed Ebert, who died last year, during the last four of months of his life). It also tells his life story and presents a compassionate portrait of a journalist who was the consummate critic. The film opens tomorrow at the Cedar Lee Theatre in Cleveland Heights and at the Nightlight in Akron. The Nightlight will have co-producer Mark Mitten introducing the film in person this weekend: Saturday, July 12, at 4:30 p.m. and 9:15 p.m. (currently sold out) and Sunday, July 13, at 9:15 p.m.
The movie begins with a bit of history. Ebert grew up in a working class family that lived in Urbana, Illinois. A gifted student, he had hoped to attend an Ivy League school. But his father maintained that wasn’t something the family could afford so he instead went to the University of Illinois. He worked for the school newspaper and we hear from former colleagues who attest to his integrity as the paper’s editor (he once stopped the presses to take a potentially offensive ad out of the paper). In the effort to support himself through grad school, he got a job at the Chicago Sun-Times and quickly embraced the life of a reporter, joining fellow journalists at the neighborhood bar. At that time, film criticism was still a developing art form (in one revealing scene in the film, we learn that reviews at the Sun-Times were often written by whichever reporter could attend the press screening and published under a pseudonym). Ebert took criticism to another level and in 1975, he would win a Pulitzer for his work. Bits of his reviews are interspersed throughout the film and it’s immediately clear that his writing had a distinctive voice.
His fame would carry over to the PBS show he would host with Gene Siskel, a critic from the rival paper the Chicago Tribune. He and Siskel sparred on and off camera and we see some b-roll footage that shows the degree to which they argued. And that’s the beauty of James’ film. While it clearly casts Ebert in a positive light, it doesn’t shy away from his flaws and touches upon his drinking habits and shows how he often lashed out at his wife Chaz as she tried to help him. But in the end, the lasting impression we get is of a man who so loved his work that he continued to blog and review movies up until the very end of his life.