Growing up an avid movie lover in Chicago, I had taken my position in the Ebert vs. Siskel Wars long before the two critics ever sat down in front of a TV camera. Gene Siskel was the film critic for the Chicago Tribune. I admired his work but felt much more in sync with the opinions and worldview of Roger Ebert, the Chicago Sun-Times journalist whose artfully written reviews and analyses won him the very first Pulitzer Prize for film criticism. I’d like to say that I always relied on my own opinions when it came to movies, but Ebert’s reviews had a big impact on me — from encouraging me to seek out smaller films that I’d never heard of to scaring me away from some of the bigger films that he felt were utter disasters. I ended up working at the Chicago Tribune just out of college and would occasionally attempt to chat with Gene Siskel (by then a “thumbs-up” celebrity thanks to his popular TV show with Ebert) about the movies of the day when I ran into him, but I still vastly preferred Roger’s writing, sneaking contraband copies of the Sun-Times into Tribune Tower so I could plan my weekend moviegoing.

lifeitself-posterFor me, Steve James’ new film about Roger Ebert, Life Itself, is a near-perfect documentary. It conveys Ebert’s life and career with great humor, directness, honesty and insight. It shows in fascinating detail how, despite his debilitating illness, Ebert found a way to continue his life’s work up until the very end. I can’t remember the last film I’ve seen that induced so much laughter and tears, or one that I found as inspiring and personally meaningful. The director of two films that Ebert championed, Hoop Dreams and The Interrupters, Steve James was given unprecedented access to Ebert, his wife, Chaz, and many of the couple’s close friends and family during the final four months of the critic’s life. Of course, when James signed on, no one knew that Roger Ebert would soon succumb to the cancer that had ravaged him so dramatically. The director was simply planning to make a film based on Roger’s moving memoir, also called Life Itself, and had intended to show how Ebert was still incredibly active, even with his disability and the fact that he could no longer talk or eat.

But shortly after agreeing to make the movie, Ebert was hospitalized yet again and much of the filming took place at the Rehabilitation Institute in Chicago where he was trying to get back on his feet. Sadly, Roger Ebert never fully recovered from this final setback and, as the world knows, he died on April 4, 2013, at the age of 70.

Roger EbertRoger was adamant about showing the harsh realities of his life and the film does not shy away from revealing the disfigurement Ebert suffered when his lower jaw had to be removed because of cancer of the thyroid and salivary glands. Yes, this is shocking to see at first, and some viewers may have the initial instinct to look away, but give it a few minutes and you will get used to Ebert’s “new normal,” just as you would if one of your family members had undergone such a procedure. In his later years, Ebert spoke through a computer device, continued to write reviews, and was a constant presence on his website and on Twitter, writing not only about movies but about all sorts of issues he felt were important.


In addition to documenting his most recent travails, Life Itself provides a fascinating look into Ebert’s childhood, college years and wildly successful career. A good portion of the film focuses on his legendary rivalry with his TV partner, Gene Siskel. Outtakes from attempts to record promos for their syndicated movie review show provide hilarious proof that the two had wildly opposing styles and that the impatience and disharmony they felt with each other was in no way an act or part of some on-air shtick. Which makes it all the more moving when we see how they begrudgingly came to love each other like bickering brothers and how devastated Roger was when Gene kept his own illness a secret and didn’t give his partner the chance to say good-bye before he died in 1999. That lack of closure played a big part in Roger’s decision to be so open about his own devastating health problems.

Roger Ebert was definitely no saint, and aspects of his occasionally prickly personality come through loud and clear in this film. Some of his fellow critics took issue with the close friendships Ebert developed with certain filmmakers, including people like Werner Herzog and Martin Scorsese, both interviewed in the film. You can certainly make a case that such relationships are not a good idea for journalists, however you never get the impression that they colored Ebert’s opinions of his friends’ films. Scorsese shares how devastated he was when Ebert panned one of his movies, but emphasized that Ebert was never mean-spirited about it and how the criticism just made him want to make better films. The documentary includes revealing interviews with filmmakers, fellow critics and journalists, people who worked on Siskel and Ebert’s various TV shows, and even some very moving thoughts from Gene Siskel’s widow, Marlene.


One of the most inspiring things about Life Itself is getting a glimpse of the marriage between Roger and Chaz Ebert. Though he married later in life, it’s clear that this was a love match so beautiful and complete it might have been judged as unrealistic if it were part of a film that Ebert were reviewing. But there’s no way to give anything less than two thumbs up to this gorgeous and emotion-packed remembrance of such a remarkable and influential writer and person.

Life Itself is currently in theaters and available on VOD and iTunes.