There is something bizarrely meta about reviewing Life Itself, a film about one of cinema’s most outspoken and respected film critics. Because in charting the fascinating life of Roger Ebert, and in turn his love affair with films, there is a powerful message for us to face up to adversity and love life and everything it throws at us.
The documentary, which is essentially a visual representation of Ebert’s 2011 memoire of the same name, charts how as a young man Ebert was determined to be a writer. A man who took film criticism to levels previously unheard of, he became a name in which people could put no end of trust in his often brutal opinion. From his beginnings as the youngest daily film critic in America through his booze fuelled days in Chicago bars, often recounting stories that would not seem out of place in a more seedy version of TV’s Cheers, we’re seeped in this man’s life and his personality, with all his flaws and strengths.
There is a moment in the TV show Entourage when the movie star at the show’s centre has to woo an online blogger, it’s a damning indictment of the Hollywood system that demonstrates a critics ability to manipulate things to his own power hungry ways. But what Life Itself makes so clear is that Ebert didn’t wield his power with ungainly arrogance. Instead the studios at first loved him, then hated him before eventually coming to fear him. Because, while he had friends within the industry he never pandered to them nor allowed emotions to cloud his judgment. There is a wonderful moment as Martin Scorsese waxes lyrical about Ebert’s ability to transcend the language of cinema before revealing how Ebert tore strips off the director in regards to The Colour Of Money.
There is something empowering about this message; that above all else he remained dedicated to expressing his honest opinion. Werner Herzog, another man happiest when expressing his true self, refers to Ebert as “a soldier of cinema”. Because what resonates is that often Ebert was able to get to the bottom of a film’s message better than the filmmaker could have hoped for, that in reading Ebert’s reviews many people found a cinematic experience heightened by his insight.
But while the love for cinema sits high in the film it is Ebert’s personality that shines brightest. Even after his numerous battles with cancer, not to mention losing his ability to speak, he remains affectionate and funny. His bubbly personality always present. The film’s most endearing moments are between Ebert and his onscreen colleague and critic Gene Siskel. Like an old married couple they bicker on screen. They’re careers seemingly entwined thanks to their successful TV show Siskel & Ebert they are often at each other’s throats. But just as you’re convinced of a genuine hatred between the two you begin to realise a true affection burns bright beneath the bravado.
More than a love letter to cinema, more than the story of a film critic Life Itself is a powerful and heartwarming example of art capturing the human spirit and never letting go.