Roger Ebert was a master at film criticism. Therefore, it is fitting that the documentary on his life would achieve his standards of a thumbs up film. Â Life Itself succeeds with grace and joy. Directed by Steve James (Hoop Dreams), one can only imagine Ebert insisted on giving the raw truth, which is the main ingredient of any good documentary. Filmed during the last five months of his life, the Chicago critic was an open script, yielding aÂ deeply introspective film which tackles the heaviness of death while not forgetting the happiness of life.
Never avoiding uncomfortable moments like Ebert’s medical procedures â€” arguably the most difficult parts of the film to watch â€” and strife with his on-camera partner Gene Siskel, James smoothly unravels Ebert’s journey. Unlike some docs on high-profile figures, Ebert isn’t presented as an angel. All sides of him glow onscreen, from the ferocious film critic with a sharp tongue to an older man still passionate about cinema even while fighting a terminal illness.
James, an appropriate choice to direct the documentary given Ebert’s championing of Hoop Dreams, is the reason that film is an American classic. He engages the audience using archival footage, pieces from Ebert’s memoir and candid interviews with everyone from Martin Scorsese to Ebert’s wife, Chaz Hammel-Smith. The latter is the leading lady in Roger’s life, and their relationship is a highlight of the film. Chaz candidly talks being in an interracial relationship (they married in 1992) and how they both allowed each other to be who they were. Â In many ways, Life Itself is a love story about a man who found his passion at the movies and found a loyal, strong woman in Chaz. The movie is truly about the resiliency of love without being sappy or a long funeral.
Roger Ebert’s presence is immortal and, considering his body of work and influence on movies, he is American history. Life Itself is one of the best documentaries of the year.