I had the love/hate feels for Roger Ebert when I first started watching Siskel and Ebert on TV. Although I had been going to the show from early on in my life, I didn’t take an interest in film criticism until my teens. And, Siskel and Ebert’s show was something I would catch on the tube from time to time. Frankly, early on, I didn’t like Ebert much when he worked with Siskel. He was opinionated (a trait expected from a critic) however, it seemed like he liked to egg Siskel on into a heated argument every episode.
As I got older, I grew into the flavour Siskel and Ebert were aiming for – two duelling critics competing for airtime, each having something important to say. With time, I grew to respect the two, to the point that I shed a tear when Siskel passed away in 1999, and a waterfall when Ebert finally left this mortal coil in 2013. Since both have gone, big film critic shoes are asking to be filled.
Life Itself is a documentary that tells Roger Ebert’s story, from his beginnings growing up as an only child delivering newpapers, to becoming an editor at the Chicago Sun-Times, and then a movie critic. Directed by Steve James (Hoop Dreams, Stevie), we are shown the last few months of Ebert’s life, as he is at the end stages of cancer. The disease had already claimed his jaw, and at the point of filming, he had suffered a fractured hip and was in hospital. I am not going to say this was an easy film to watch. Ebert didn’t look his best (to respectfully put that mildly), but a strength of character was there, and he would convey his feelings often via his MacBook Pro, a text-to-speech program and synthesized voice. He also gained strength from his lovely wife, Chaz, who herself questioned her bravery throughout this ordeal. Interviews with his closest allies and colleagues are given, including Gene Siskel’s wife, who tells of the real-life rivalry between Siskel and Ebert, who both worked for rival Chicago newspapers, were fiercely competative, but who deep-down grew to respect and love one another like brothers, even though this was not seen on camera.
Above all, my takeaway from the film was how much he loved his life and career. The love for his wife was absolutely palpable, and the feeling was definitely mutual, which created a very emotional and endearing documentary. Prepare to have a box of tissues nearby!