Life Itself, film review: Deeply moving story of the life and death of a Chicago journalist


Click to follow

A film about a movie critic might not sound an attractive proposition, but Steve James’s biographical documentary on Pulitzer Prize-winning, Chicago Sun-Times journalist Roger Ebert (who died last year) is deeply moving.

It works on many different levels. On one hand, it is a celebration of its subject’s career. Ebert, in his pomp, was easily as famous as the film-makers whose work he reviewed in print and on the hugely popular TV show he fronted with Chicago Tribune critic Gene Siskel. His style was folksy and accessible. He was one of the most fervent early champions of Martin Scorsese’s work and he famously collaborated with Russ Meyer on exploitation pic Beyond the Valley of the Dolls.

On another level, this is a story of professional rivalry. Ebert’s relationship with Siskel was spiky and antagonistic, albeit underlined with affection. Ebert himself seemed an extraordinarily avuncular figure, but James isn’t blind to the darker, less attractive sides of his personality. If the film is about Ebert’s life, it is also a chronicle of his death. James was there with his camera, filming Ebert in hospital after he had had his jaw removed because of cancer. Ebert faces his condition with courage and humour, allowing James to film him, even when he is being fed through a suction tube.

Ebert kept on working until the end of his life, blogging and tweeting. As he makes clear, when he was watching or reviewing a film, he was able to keep any affliction at bay.