I think the time I stopped actively reading film reviews and chose to rely on the good ole’ tomato meter instead was right around the time that Roger Ebert died. I didn’t actively read Ebert, it wasn’t like I visited his webpage everyday and got his take on the latest blockbuster or indie, but more of a critic I’d casually peruse to see if he agreed or disagreed with my opinion.
When he did die in 2013, it felt like he was the last critic to actually have an impact on whether or not his readers will see a particular movie. Not critics, mind you, as plenty of moviegoers still base their assessment of whether a movie is worth seeing on if it gets a fresh rating on Rotten Tomatoes. But a singular, trusted critic, a person whose voice and opinion you valued enough that you’d be willing to sacrifice $13 and two hours of your life to see whatever movie they liked.
So how did Ebert become the the tour-de-force, end-all, be-all movie critic whom we had never seen before his time and will never see again after he’s gone? Simple: he loved movies and he loved people, and through that love was able to become beloved.
That love is at the heart of Life Itself, a chronicle of Ebert’s life from boyhood to film critic to television star to husband, with a heavy amount of the movie detailing Ebert’s life after the removal of his lower jaw due to thyroid cancer. Clearly, everyone in this movie loves Ebert, warts and all. Even when they discuss his more salient flaws or misdeeds, it’s wrapped in a coat of compromise: “yeah, he was an asshole to Siskel from time to time, but come on, he’s Roger Ebert!”
The film is at its best when its discussing Ebert’s life during the heyday of his now infamous television show At The Movies, where Ebert evolved from windy city movie critic to the single most influential critical voice in the world. The relationship between himself and his co-host, Chicago Tribune critic Gene Siskel, is examined in-depth, detailing the men’s often combative nature and their natural dependence on one another. They’re like two men trapped on a remote island who are sick of each other’s company, but the idea of one of them leaving to find rescue and not returning is simply terrifying to the other.
But Life Itself is also illuminating for examining Ebert’s personal and creative follies outside of film criticism. Intimate, home movies of his family’s vacations, hand-drawings and photographs from Ebert’s travels all serve as a living memory box of a public figure, a deeper examination into what this person was, not just who he was. It’s a rare treat when a documentary on a popular subject is actually able to unearth something new and undiscovered, but Life Itself does just that through these heartfelt trinkets and keepsakes, painting a colorful portrait of what the man thought and felt when he wasn’t at the movies.
Every documentary has a bit of a bias and Life Itself is no different, as director Steve James clearly adores Ebert. But this doesn’t feel as an objective piece of filmmaking so much as a director deciding to take on the task of making the Ebert biography that the world knows is an eventuality. James avoids putting Ebert up on a pedestal like some sort of untouchable movie god, he paints Ebert as relatable and accessible, intelligent but not necessary an intellectual. James occasionally touches upon controversy that Ebert received but never explicitly details a personal mistake or a fault in his character, making his movie feel much more like a 120-minute-long eulogy than an actual biography. That isn’t a bad thing, but if you’re looking for a standard bio, Life Itself isn’t it.
The movie has a 100% rating on Rotten Tomatoes for top critics, meaning that most notable critics from mainstream publications gave it a positive review. I wonder if these critics actually felt this way or if they were afraid that if they gave the Ebert biography a bad review that they’d be blackballed from the movie criticism community. Both are possible but I’m leaning a little more to the former, as there are very few things to not enjoy about this film. You’d honestly have to be actively searching for something to dislike if you were going to end up not liking it.
A name that pops up often in the film is Pauline Kael, the former film critic for The New Yorker and the only person who could be considered to be a “better” critic than Ebert. Kael is often credited for turning film criticism into a legitimate art form in and of itself. And that’s credit well due, but while Kael made film criticism into art, Ebert made it into art worth caring about, simultaneously accessible and enjoyable to both cinephiles who’ve watched endless hours of experimental and arthouse films and the common man who may not know who Jim Jarmusch is but is willing to give him a shot if Ebert says so.
There will probably never be another Roger Ebert, someone whose scope and reach is so encompassing that their voice resonates strongest among any other. This is partly due to the shift in the digital landscape where thousands of professional and amateur writers crank out movie reviews every second. But it’s much more because there is no person who can effectively translate their love of film and watching films into the written word as much as Ebert. As the film closes, we’re left with a message that its subject is gone but not forgotten. It’s often a cliche, but for Ebert, it’s totally true.