If one extensively examines Roger Ebert’s career as a film critic, you may be surprised to discover his willingness to discuss his own personal life. His movie reviews are heavily influential to many film writers today, largely due to his subscription to film criticism as a personal diary. Ebert did not merely discuss what makes a film good or bad. For him, the best way to assess someone’s work was to peel away at a part of yourself in order to find a concrete argument. Life Itself (2014) exemplifies this famous eagerness for candid honesty.
The film is uniquely Ebert: a love-letter to his glory days and his achievements as a film critic, as well as a glimpse into his more vulnerable moments. Life Itself was filmed during Ebert’s final months. In the documentary, we see him confined to his hospital bed, battling the late stages of thyroid cancer. He cannot speak, having lost part of his jaw due to growing complications, and communicates solely through his trusty laptop, allowing a computer text reader to speak in his stead. Even through a computer, Ebert’s words are emotional. They carry so much life, just as his writings can convey so much emotion, even if you know nothing about his topic of choice.
Life Itself is a celebration of film criticism as much as it is a celebration of Ebert’s legacy. The documentary provides a peek into Ebert’s landmark television programs: Sneak Preview and At The Movies, both co-hosted with fellow film critic Gene Siskel. In their shows, both Ebert and Siskel often championed the works of lesser-known filmmakers. The documentary’s director Steven James is one of those filmmakers who thrived thanks to Ebert’s attention. Life Itself can be interpreted as an act of humility, from a filmmaker seeking to give back to a man dearly close to his own heart.