Friday, July 04, 2014

Life Itself

Today I saw Life Itself, a documentary about the legendary Pulitzer-prize winner Roger Ebert.

When Steve James set about to direct a film about the world's most famous film critic, he knew there was a chance his subject wouldn't live to see its completion. Unfortunately, that prophecy came true.

In some ways, though, it feels as if it was timed just right. Ebert deserved a public coda to that amazing life of his, and capturing some of his last moments and words brings a depth to the poignancy and prestige of the project.

The film begins with the star's birth in 1942 and shares memories from his youth as an only child in Illinois as well as his drinking days as an early "newspaper man." There's no glossing over his alcoholism or his tendency to be pompous, especially after he won a Pulitzer. The man wasn't perfect—but he was refreshingly real.

Much of the commentary is provided by Ebert himself, along with his beautiful wife Chaz; Gene Siskel's widow Marlene; various newspaper buddies; former producers of his television shows; his stepchildren and stepgrandchildren; and a few famous directors. Everyone speaks candidly and from the heart, which is both hilarious and heartbreaking at every turn.

Equal time is devoted to the romanticism of his past and the devastating realities of his last decade of life, which was spent overcoming one medical battle after another. The sheer strength of his wife dealing with all of this pain will leave audiences in awe.

The remarkable thing is that he never felt sorry for himself.

Here was a man who had lost the ability to speak and eat, but was as sunny and happy as ever, offering his trademark "thumbs up" in response to those checking in on him. He became a trailblazer in the social media space and spent his hours doing what he had always done best: writing.

Although I could watch footage of he and Siskel arguing until the cows come home, I did wish there was more of the love story he shared with Chaz included. Perhaps the DVD will be packed with extras and I'll get my fill.

I grieved the day we lost him and I continue to grieve every time that I see a film and instinctively go to check IMDB to see what Roger thought of it too, only realizing after a few seconds that his reviews ended a year ago.

I'm thankful that Steve James made this moving portrait of his life, as his influence will live on forever.


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