Steve James’s Life Itself captures film critic Roger Ebert’s unmistakably direct creative voice, that fashion he had of bridging the natural gulf that exists between writer and reader. Ebert’s defining, and divisive, characteristic as a critic was his universality. You don’t need a degree or a subscription to Film Comment to understand Ebert’s reviews, a pointedly achieved quality that sought to bring democracy to an art form that’s generally thought—often unfairly—to be only for egghead specialists. Working from Ebert’s memoir of the same name, James embraces a cinematic formality that’s as pared and confidently unfussy as his subject’s writing, as he favors a surprisingly conventional talking-heads structure that nevertheless allows for occasional dissonances. There are plenty of fawning testimonials to Ebert’s talent and generosity of spirit, particularly from A-list directors, such as Werner Herzog and executive producer Martin Scorsese, both of whom Ebert encouraged at pivotal junctures in their careers. (James is another member of this club, as Ebert was the earliest champion of his galvanizing Hoop Dreams.) But other subjects, particularly critics such as Jonathan Rosenbaum and Richard Corliss, are outright ambivalent toward Ebert’s legacy, and the iconic critic’s old friends are just as openly bitter about that irresolution, especially one crony who unseemly spouts, “Fuck Pauline Kael.”
The Kael comment references the sentiment that Siskel & Ebert cheapened film criticism with a quick fast-food approach that reduced a movie to the flip of an up- or down-turned thumb, ignoring its ambiguities, while writers like Kael and Andrew Sarris fought the good erudite fight with revolutionary practices that furthered the medium. Ebert, initially working closely with James before his death last year due to complications from thyroid cancer, said he wanted a full human portrait, rather than a valedictory lap, and that’s what he got—to an extent. The documentarian is clearly in Ebert’s corner, returning a hero’s enormous favor, but condescension toward Ebert as a populist compromiser is hip and widespread enough that James’s stance ultimately scans as optimistic and almost bravely pragmatic. James is logically responding to the strength of his subject’s enormous personality, which might be undervalued by colleagues who’re flummoxed by Ebert’s popularity.
That irrepressibility reached its operatic expression near the end of the man’s life. The footage of Ebert and his wife, Chaz, in the hospital wrestling with unending complications from his cancer or, later, settling back into their home intensifies the less-challenging inspirational comfort to be taken from much of the rest of the movie. Life Itself has the polish of a making-of supplement that might be found on a home-video release, but these scenes have the visceral empathy and originality of James’s previous films. At the end of Ebert’s life, most of his jaw was removed, his mouth a dangling flap, while a talking computer sounded aloud the sentiments he’d type to loved ones and guests. His face is poetically ravaged (Herzog says something about Ebert marching as a soldier of cinema no matter what his injuries), and its new shape directs your attention toward his wide, intelligent eyes, which beam not just with life, but with insatiable curiosity, which is Herculean considering the unimaginable pain and torment that Ebert must have been in at this point of his life.
Life Itself is often moving (with some of this material there’s no way it couldn’t be), but it doesn’t feel finished. The continual disjunctions between the soft heroic sell and the acknowledgements of professional opportunism keep the film thrumming along, but they also foster an impression that James is rushing and dutifully covering all his bases to evade accusations of creating a puff piece. The intention is obvious and theoretically sound, as James wants to emphasize that the good and bad of Ebert’s legacy are intertwined like anyone else’s. But the tensions, primarily between Ebert, the crusading critic, and Ebert, the shrewdly hobnobbing, celebrity-courting consumer reporter, are acknowledged but left hanging, and many of the interviews feel needless and obvious when compared to the revelatory stature of the footage with Ebert and Chaz.
A traditional Steve James film might have rooted us solely in the present tense of the days right before Ebert’s death, shedding the light of humanity on a legend, such as in a powerful moment where Ebert fights with Chaz as to how to navigate his home stairwell. But James, attempting to emulate Ebert’s broad reach as a writer by rendering his own film accessible, falls short and resorts to conventionally reporting widely known biographical facts, inadvertently highlighting the challenges of attaining the kind of accessibility that Ebert himself misleadingly appeared to effortlessly achieve. The specter of accessibility haunts the entire film, in fact, and even its failings honor the unusual alchemy of Ebert’s work, which celebrated the unlimited possibilities of instinct, hunger, and vigor, not only as they pertained to the democratization of film criticism, but to democracy period.