“He is a nice guy, but he’s not that nice.”
Those might be the most important words in “Life Itself,” Steve James’s nice — but not too nice — film about the late Roger Ebert. It would have been easy, and in James’s case, tempting, to make Ebert into a secular saint in this documentary, much of which was filmed during the last months of the film critic’s life. There was so much to celebrate: the early, “unspeakably romantic” years working as a cub reporter for his university newspaper; the hard-drinking, self-mythologizing era while writing for the Chicago Sun-Times, the culture-changing television show “At the Movies,” which Ebert hosted with “professional enemy” Gene Siskel; the late-in-life embrace of social media, during which he lost his physical voice but gained a new one uniquely suited to his passionate, promiscuous love of movies and art and politics and, well, life itself.
But as this absorbing, delightfully entertaining portrait demonstrates, Ebert wasn’t always an angel. He could be cruel and arrogant and, especially in his rivalry with Siskel, shockingly petty and bullheaded. (This reviewer’s sole encounter with him — when we were the only two people in a hotel room waiting to interview Martin Scorsese — was brief, monosyllabic and curt.)
That “not that nice” quote comes from one of many friends Ebert hung out with at O’Rourkes, the Chicago pub where he almost drank himself to death before getting sober in the late 1970s. Like Pauline Kael, the only other American film critic who approached Ebert’s reach and influence, he perceived cinematic taste less as a matter of subjective taste than of morals and character: If you weren’t with him, you not only needed to have your head examined, but your heart, as well.
That headstrong commitment and ringingly persuasive voice course through “Life Itself,” which not only pays homage to Ebert as a champion of emerging filmmakers from Scorsese and Errol Morris to James himself, but as a fighter to the end. In what viewers may deem excessively intimate scenes of Ebert being treated for the thyroid and salivary gland cancer that would eventually take his life in April 2013, “Life Itself” presents a painfully candid depiction of suffering but also endurance and brio. No matter how bad it gets, Ebert’s eyes twinkle mischievously above the sagging, empty jawline that in recent years gave him an expression of perpetual, maybe even amused, astonishment. (The man who helped make “two thumbs up” a household phrase would ultimately rely on that very gesture to express his own optimistic spirit after losing the ability to speak in 2006.)
Thankfully, Ebert actually narrates parts of “Life Itself,” the title of which is taken from his memoir, the book-on-tape version of which we hear on screen. He was a brilliant, unselfconscious, enviably quick writer who could deliver a piece of lambent critical prose in 30 minutes, and that facility and sheer joy of expression propels what might have been an extended eulogy into a soaring testament to the power and poetry of words. And cinema. And love, which Ebert found with his wife, Chaz, a figure of astonishing strength and generosity who reportedly turned a lifelong curmudgeon into the gentle-natured softie many of his readers always assumed he was.
Working with Ebert’s own voice-over as well as the reminiscences of friends and family (including Siskel’s widow, whose candid observations of Gene and Roger’s eventual friendship account for some of the film’s most moving moments), James gives Ebert his due, not only as the first movie reviewer to win the Pulitzer Prize, but as a towering cultural figure and, finally, an unpretentious, ink-stained philosopher. As Ebert says, reading from his book, he saw cinema as a “machine that generates empathy,” a means of opening worlds and connecting with all those other Others.
“Life Itself” is a tribute to those ever-opening worlds, and opens up a world itself — the mind of a daily journalist who was arguably the late 20th century’s most influential humanist. You may not have agreed with Ebert’s reviews — you may not have thought he was such a nice guy. But if you aren’t moved by “Life Itself,” you ought to have your heart examined.
★ ★ ★
R. At Landmark’s E Street Cinema. Contains brief sexual images, nudity and profanity.