Life Itself

In retrospect it seems obvious that the best way to do a Roger Ebert appreciation piece is to do it in movie form. Director Steve James’ profile of the world’s most famous film critic isn’t itself a work of criticism per se, but rather a posthumous extension of Ebert’s memoir, whose title it takes. This Life Itself does allow for some critical appraisal: that Ebert could be full of himself, a control freak, a baby; that consumer advice in lieu of criticism can devalue culture; that the fact of several now-established filmmakers feeling personally indebted to him does complicate Ebert’s authority. Mostly, though, the movie keeps reminding us that Ebert was an inspiration — be it as the populist Chicago newsman forever buying rounds and holding court, or as Gene Siskel’s sparring partner, or Chaz Ebert’s life partner, or the brave cancer battler who kept grinning even in the face of missing half his face. James doesn’t flinch from letting Ebert seem like a self-romanticized character, but this accords well with the basic tenet of Ebertism, declared early on, that “the movies are like a machine that generates empathy.” And besides, often enough, there was lasting greatness in his plainspoken prose. Of course it was at his own risk that Ebert once disparaged The Three Amigos with Chevy Chase sitting right beside him on the Tonight Show couch, but how touching it still is to know he’d earned it; the risk was his alone to take.