'Life Itself:' A look beyond Ebert

By Declan Harty

To criticize a film about the life of the arguably most famous film critic, Roger Ebert, would be the epitome of irony. But “Life Itself,” the film documentary based on Ebert’s memoirs, has no room for criticism.

The film directed by Steve James, who has long been supported by Ebert in films like “Hoop Dreams,” opened Ebertfest on Wednesday night to a nearly sold out crowd.

The film premiered in January at the Sundance Film Festival and is scheduled for distribution later this year. The film documents the final four months of Ebert’s life, highlighting some of the most iconic and memorable moments. Kicking off Ebertfest, the film was the perfect beginning for the festival and tribute to Ebert, whom the festival is dedicated to this year.

But it captures much more than just Ebert’s life. The film simply sums up life in general, and the emotions that accompany it.

Though I am only a 20-year-old college student, “Life Itself” brought not just Ebert’s joys and pains to the screen, but everyone in the audience’s emotions to the screen.

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James builds Ebert’s story through the lens of his family, friends, fellow film reviewers and, most importantly, Ebert himself. Interchanging between James’s camera, interviews and pictures from Ebert’s childhood, James masterfully packs the emotions that many endure throughout their life.

From Ebert’s youth consisting of growing up in Urbana, writing for the News-Gazette and eventually becoming the editor-in-chief of The Daily Illini, the audience is able to grasp the changing personality of someone that was trying to find himself as most 20-something-year-olds do, myself included.

But the balance in the film between moments of joy and heartache is what so accurately depicts life.

It wasn’t just Ebert’s life that James used to show the image. A large majority of the film was dedicated to the relationship between the late Gene Siskel and Ebert. 

The film critics infamously joined forces in 1986 for their television program, “Siskel and Ebert and the Movies.” Though both represented the Midwest and stood tall in Chicago, their relationship and show was initially a struggle because they did not get along.

As rivals from the Chicago Tribune and the Sun-Times, the two argued often, to say the least. And even though, Ebert frequently bragged that he had a Pulitzer Prize, and Siskel used his wit to counter this, their relationship evolved from rivals to friends. James captures this idea through an image that stuck with me. It was a brief outtake from the opening scene of an episode, and take after take after take, Siskel and Ebert continued to bicker like an old married couple.

It was moments like Siskel’s death and Ebert’s struggles with alcohol and rehab that made life the center of the movie for me, because in life and movies death, pain and sadness all play a part.

Audience members cried to these struggles, but the brilliance of James and Ebert was to capture not just these moments, but also the ones that follow them.

Another crafted moment by James in the film is the lack of transitional periods from joyous moments to sadness and grief. In the film, James never breaks from the consistency that is life.

From one minute the tears that accompany Ebert’s struggles in rehab switch to smiles that join the upbeat tempo of Steely Dan’s “Reelin’ in the Years” that Ebert plays on his laptop.

The film’s portrayal of Ebert was the most fascinating part though — he was not a perfect human as no one is. As the film’s run time progressed, the crowd continued to live the life of Ebert from a cocky 21-year-old editor-in-chief to an alcoholic, then from a Pulitzer Prize winner and rival to a friend, loving husband and grandfather.

But quite frankly, Ebert cannot be described in words. But “Life Itself” was able to capture the movie that was Roger Ebert.

For as Ebert said in his memoirs: “I was born inside the movie of my life. The visuals were before me, the audio surrounded me, the plot unfolded inevitably but not necessarily. I don’t remember how I got into the movie, but it continues to entertain me.”

Declan is a sophomore in Media. He can be reached at [email protected].