Steve James (“Hoop Dreams”) presented “Life Itself,” the documentary about Roger Ebert, last night at the majestic Virginia Theater in Roger’s home town of Urbana, Illinois, where Roger watched films as a boy and as a college student at the University of Illinois. He told us he had always thought there was “a firewall between filmmakers and critics” until he read Roger’s book, which described his friendships with a very few directors. He was sorry to miss that opportunity, but thought it made him “freer” to create the candid portrait that Roger would have wanted as a critic, as a journalist, and as a man.
“Film the man, not the icon,” was the direction James got, according to Roger’s widow, Chaz Ebert. And the movie is frank about Roger’s struggles with alcohol and the transformation of his life when he finally found deep, romantic love with Chaz at age 50. It is also frank about his last days, his courage, resilience during his illness and ultimately his peace with the end of life. It is moving to see his deep engagement with movies, with his friends and family, with his longtime rival and partner Gene Siskel (the outtake footage of their show is even more hilarious than the appalling 70’s outfits and hairstyles), with his passionate romance with Chaz, with journalism as a craft and writing as an art, and his passionate online presence once he could no longer speak.
Roger always said that a film should be an empathy device to help us understand and connect to each other. While this movie shows that even the greatest film is a virtual experience compared to genuine in-person interaction, it lives up to his highest standards as a critic. The entire audience gave it thumbs up.