A film critic reviewing a documentary about a film critic he considers a personal hero? Man, this could get confusing or really touching, I’m not exactly sure. What one can say with a large degree of sincerity is that there’s a lot of love on display in the excellent new biographical film called Life Itself. Based on the memoir by the late, great, and powerfully adored Roger Ebert, the documentary comes from veteran filmmaker Steve James, a man once championed by Mr. Ebert for his now-classic sports documentary Hoop Dreams.
Hoop Dreams is not mentioned once during Life Itself, but one cannot help but feel that Mr. James has a deep love for Roger Ebert. His masterful approach to factual storytelling has never been more evident; Life Itself is a biography, a love letter, a celebration, and a frankly honest portrait of a man who specialized in writing about movies, but was really quite remarkable in many other ways.
But this is not a scrubbed-up or sanitized version of Roger Ebert’s life. The filmmakers are sure to include numerous colorful anecdotes about the man’s flaws and foibles, which only serve to make the Pulitzer Prize-winning film critic seem more heroic in the long run. (Did you know Roger Ebert used to be an alcoholic? Yep. Beat it decades ago and moved on. Just another cool story.)
What other well-meaning documentarians might do is skip over the more unpleasant stuff, but Steve James’ team is smarter than that. Real people are flawed, and Mr. Ebert’s flaws only served to underline how few they were. This was just a smart, generous, film geek who also happened to be one fantastic writer. And while several of the sequences of Mr. Ebert spending time in hospitals are frequently painful to watch, I was truly grateful for these last few visits with a personal hero — lump in my throat be damned.
It would be pointless (not to mention counter-productive) to list all of the moments and contributions that Life Itself gets right (Scorsese is great; Herzog is wonderful; the late Gene Siskel receives a warm tribute; Chaz Ebert is a hero, etc.), but whether you want the “chronology” of Roger Ebert’s successes and struggles, the hardcore movie geek madness the man possessed, or the numerous ways in which he touched and helped other people, this two-hour tribute to one of the world’s finest film buffs is essential viewing.
As a film critic, as a film lover, and as a passionate film DEBATER, I have always considered myself a student of Roger Ebert. I don’t write like him and I don’t think I’ll ever be as good as he was, and it would take fifteen more paragraphs to explain all of the things he taught me about A) movies, B) writing, and C) personality. All I’ll say that is when one of your lifelong heroes passes away, I hope they get a documentary tribute as entertaining, touching, and satisfying as Life Itself.
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