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Sunday, July 6, 2014

Review: Life Itself

When Steve James began filming Roger Ebert in 2012, the idea was to craft a documentary about the film critic's life. Ebert had undergone the loss of his lower jaw in 2006 after a series of debilitating surgeries for cancer of the thyroid and salivary glands. He was no stranger to hospitals, and just as filming on the documentary spun up, Ebert checked in for his seventh stay in six years. But a stay that began in December for a hairline fracture in his hip slowly unraveled, revealing underlying complications that would leave him dead by April. 

And so the documentary that sought to focus on Ebert's life took a detour, also capturing the four months leading up to Ebert's death. The camera delved into the personal hell of living without a full jaw; Ebert could not speak or eat, and was fed through tubes. Nurses had to give him painful-looking suction sessions regularly, vacuuming out saliva from the hole in his neck. And then things got even worse, and the camera covered the painful moments when Ebert and his wife, Chaz, realized he was about to lose his battle. 

Perhaps more striking than seeing any of these realities, though, was Ebert's upbeat, perky attitude, particularly contrasted against the younger version of himself we're told about in this documentary. I had never watched Siskel & Ebert's show when it was on, so I didn't come in to Life Itself with any pre-conceived notions about who this man was. The picture was painted well, though. Actually, two pictures. In his early life, Ebert was a salt-of-the-earth journalist, prickly, brash, and extremely ambitious. He was hard on others - the documentary even shows footage of Ebert bullying colleague Gene Siskel between takes of their show, chiding him about his poor delivery of his lines and insisting that he do better. He was also hard on himself, struggling with alcoholism for years, to the point of wishing he was dead, and seeking the company of prostitutes.

Though Life Itself isn't shy about showcasing Ebert's flaws, this is a film created through adoring eyes. And that love is showered on the portrayal of Ebert in his later years, a man softened and arguably changed over time. He retains his unrelenting, hardworking ambition and talent up until the very end - some things never change - but I'd argue the most compelling component of Life Itself is witnessing Ebert's gradual evolution. It's difficult to say whether it was due to his illness and battle against cancer, or to losing Siskel unexpectedly (Siskel knew he was sick but decided not to tell the people in his life), or, most likely, from meeting the love of his life, Chaz.  

There's a lot going on in this documentary, though, which simultaneously: 

a) tells the life story of a Pulitzer Prize-winning writer, 
b) digs into the behind-the-scenes rivalry and struggles between him and his on-screen partner, Gene Siskel, and 
c) witnesses and documents, in real time, the death of this man. 

In some cases it's too much; the film tries to cover everything, broadly, and for doing so I think sometimes fails to ruminate on some of the more nuanced details of this story. I'd have happily watched a movie about a, b, or c, but would have loved to have seen more time devoted to the latter two topics. 

In spite of its ambitious approach, though, this documentary is absolutely well done. It's both informative and gut-wrenching, and it's difficult not to feel emotional by the film's end, even if we know exactly what's coming. Ebert said it best when he wrote of his own final days: "This is the third act. And it is an experience." 

Rating: A-

For our Atlanta readers: Life Itself is now playing at Landmark Midtown Art Cinema.
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