Some images of human frailty are so difficult to watch as to make overstating their power near impossible. Life Itself, Steve James’ new documentary about the late film critic Roger Ebert, teems with such images. Ebert is in the hospital, only months before his passing, painfully being fed through a tube directly to his throat. Chaz Ebert, his wife, breaks down during a televised interview discussing his upcoming major surgery, clasping his hand for comfort. It’s in these sorts of images, moments, and stories that Life Itself finds its surest footing, suggesting a stronger film than the one James’ wide net ultimately allows.
Steve James is a veteran documentarian whose Hoop Dreams remains one of the best, most humane films ever made, and his technical skill has only grown in the two decades since that film’s release. Life Itself is a polished, smartly crafted work of portraiture. He uses Ebert’s final few months as a frame, and it’s a suitable one, providing important context for the span of an impressive life. The backbone for the film comes from Ebert’s memoir, also called Life Itself, with plenty of voice-over narration drawn from its wonderful pages. The film bounces through time almost effortlessly, drawing intelligent connections between stories to explore the extent of Ebert’s experiences and his influence.
In addition to excerpts from Ebert’s memoir and other writings are interviews with an assortment of people ranging from filmmakers such as Werner Herzog, to fellow journalist friends from the Chicago Sun-Times, to film critic colleagues such as A.O. Scott. There are archival photos, interview clips, and plenty of footage from the Siskel & Ebert TV show, including rare outtakes. In essence, Life Itself takes the biopic approach to documentary, broadly sketching the story of Roger Ebert’s life and finding in it plenty of powerful moments and great starting points for discussion.
The film sings in the most confessional moments. Scenes of Ebert struggling through his later years of illness are equal parts difficult to watch and inspiring. Watching Chaz Ebert stand by her husband through it all offers an all too rare glimpse into the experience of those who care for the disabled. Martin Scorsese tells the story of a pivotal moment in his own life where Ebert helped bring him out of a very dark place, and it’s a challenge holding back tears.
Where Life Itself suffers, though, is in its very attempt to be a portrait of the whole man, rather than a closer examination of any one aspect of the whole. It’s the film’s greatest miscalculation, but there are other problems as well. For starters, being made by a friend and admirer, and with the express involvement of Ebert and his wife, the film offers too closely personal a perspective to ever properly reckon with its subject in all his complexity. While not quite hagiography, it does get awfully close. Even the film’s accounting of Ebert’s flaws, like the pettiness he often displayed in his rivalry with Gene Siskel, appears in service of bolstering his overall humanity, or at least hedging against accusations of fluff.
The film drops the ball in more unsavoury ways when it broaches the criticism of Ebert’s influence. Discussion of Pauline Kael and her colleagues in New York and L.A. unfairly casts them as stogy establishment figures. Coverage of Richard Corliss’ famous Film Comment essay criticizing Ebert and Siskel’s televised film reviews is cursory at best, raised only to be batted away. Corliss himself appears as an admiring talking head, diluting his own arguments. The film then further refutes him by introducing young filmmakers whom Ebert helped support, to a certain extent missing the point of his criticism. It’s unsurprising that Life Itself would take this defensive approach, not only because of the family’s involvement, but because Ebert was one of the first champions of James’ Hoop Dreams. Still, it rubs the wrong way.
Ebert’s own memoir, told from his perspective, offered the stories of his life humbly and with an honesty of accrued wisdom that actually earned a title so universal as “Life Itself.” The film strives to live up to that title, but as it turns out, simply recounting the span of another person’s life, and with so little distance, results in something far too narrow in impact. Perhaps if the film was called “Roger Himself” the complaint would be moot, but either way the value in such broadly rendered biography is questionable.
The best parts of the film deal with Ebert’s health and physical disability later in life, and while these sections are naturally emotional and inspiring, the filmmaking rarely rises above perfunctory. Here the film might have found its most universal appeal: a man stricken, dealing with the pain of continuing on, but pushing forward nonetheless for the love of art, life, and the woman by his side. The basis is there, and some of the power in that narrative certainly comes across, yet it’s never given the breathing room necessary to explore those ideas more fully. Fly-on-the-wall scenes at the hospital work in isolation, but not enough time is spent on them, and they are wrapped in packaging far too formally conventional to say anything uniquely profound.
Breadth in approach really is the downfall. By trying to include as much as possible, Steve James ends up merely broaching everything without enough depth. A dispassionate film exclusively about Ebert’s disrupting influence on the world of film criticism could be excellent. As could a film focused entirely on the last years of Ebert’s life. Instead, Life Itself tries to do both of those things and more, covering too much ground and always with an admiring eye, coming across as slick tribute rather than vital documentary. That may be its purpose, but with the subject’s potential and the director’s talent, it leaves something to be desired.
For you readers in Toronto, Chaz Ebert will be in town to present ‘Life Itself’ at the TIFF Bell Lightbox on July 11th.