Near the beginning of Life Itself, a clip is shown of Roger Ebert speaking at his Hollywood star on the Walk of Fame ceremony, he says “movies are like a machine that generates empathy. It lets you understand hopes, aspirations, dreams, and fears. It helps us identify with the people who are sharing this journey with us.” While Ebert was never in a movie himself, he was someone we could identify with through his writing and his courage.
Life Itself is more than a documentary about a long-time film critic and movie personality. It is a film about love, both in art and between two people, it is about strength and having the courage to keep fighting. It is much more than just a look at the most famous film critic of all-time, it is a look at a man who loved what he did, loved the people around him, and loved the movies.
Director Steve James, who also directed Hoop Dreams, holds a special place in the lore of Roger Ebert after the critic practically singlehandedly brought James’ film on the map. James directs the documentary well, cutting from personal interviews with close colleagues at first as they dive into Ebert’s childhood, upbringing, and start at the Chicago Sun-Times. Those moments spliced with clips from the 4 months leading up to Ebert’s death where James spent time filming the critic and his family in rehab strikes deeply.
Ebert is such a large personality. Not just in the early years when he was heavy but through the waves of cinema. His opinion mattered and was one that people sought out in order to know what a movie felt like before seeing it. James captures that weight as he leads up to probably the most poignant and strong part of the film — Ebert’s relationship with fellow critic Gene Siskel. The rivalry between the two is felt, and James uses interviews with Ebert’s wife Chaz and Siskel’s wife Marlene Iglitzen to get inside the heads of the two men sparring.
It didn’t seem like an easy relationship. Ebert and Siskel seemed to butt heads and the tension could be felt when they would review the films. One scene where the two review Full Metal Jacket and Benji, Siskel gives a glowing review to the Kubrick film while Ebert is not impressed and actually finds the latter film to be of better quality. Siskel is stunned that this man could pick a film about a dog over a film master like Kubrick. But in between the bickering, the two clearly had an admiration for the other and as both Chaz and Marlene put it, they were brothers til the end.
Though Life Itself is a film about a film critics and by extension, the movies, it is more importantly a film about love, both for an art and for another person. Ebert displayed a love, while hidden, for Siskel that was brotherly and was something that taught him a lot. But when the film shifted to Ebert and Chaz’s relationship, it showed a side of a man that was more than just a talented writer. It showed a man who deeply cared about another human being and there was something beautiful in that. This man who had gone through so much already early on with the death of his father and his addiction to alcohol, to find redemption and love with another person, was astounding.
Life Itself is the best film of 2014. As Ebert put it, movies are like a machine that generates empathy. This film generates empathy for a man, a man who struggled through life immensely in his last few years. It generates empathy for the profession that he helped to define. It generates empathy for each person who watches it to want to be a better person and to strive to be more like Roger. Life Itself challenges you and makes you think, not in a bad way, but in a way that could set you on a course to making your life, and the others around you better. A amazing trait for an amazing movie.