Like many who came of age in the 80s and 90s, I watched Siskel and Ebert at the Movies every week as they discussed, joked, and sometimes sparred over the newest movies. Life Itself, directed by Steve James, explores all facets of Ebert's life from his beginnings as a Chicago journalist to becoming a world famous critic.
A star student at the University of Illinois and editor of the student newspaper, Ebert began writing about movies for the Chicago Sun Times in the mid 1960s. His passion for literature and political justice always found its way into his criticism. In 1967, the release of Bonnie and Clyde and The Graduate brought a new youthful vitality to American film. Ebert championed the new American cinema with unabashed enthusiasm.
In 1976, he began work on a TV show with rival critic Gene Siskel of the Chicago Tribune. Their rivalry and friendship serves as a guiding light throughout the documentary. Apparently, the city of Chicago barely had enough room to contain their egos (for five years they refused to speak to each other). In time, a friendship evolved as each realized they made a great team. By the 1980s, they were pop culture icons making frequent rounds on the talk show circuit. They were parodied on The Simpsons and Saturday Night Live. When Siskel died of brain cancer in 1999, Ebert continued the TV show with a series of guest hosts and eventually settled on Chicago critic Richard Roper as a permanent replacement.
Life Itself does allude to controversies surrounding the show; namely, the accusation they dumbed down film criticism with their breezy TV segments. But any old guard critic will concede they popularized film for a mass audience. Some shows were devoted to current trends in cinema; others championed directors like Spike Lee, Steven Spielberg, and Errol Morris. The VHS revolution of the 1980s allowed consumers access to more movies than ever before so Siskel and Ebert arrived at just the right time.
Footage of Ebert's health struggles are difficult to watch at times. We see him feeling frustrated and depressed. He lost the ability speak and use his mouth during his final years, but stayed busy by writing and communicating through blogging and social media. His wife Chaz stuck by him every minute. He kept his sense of humor and enthusiasm for movies until the very end.
We also hear reminisces from Chicago friends and famous filmmakers. Martin Scorsese movingly recalls a moment when Ebert's friendship helped him through a difficult time.
The portrait we get is of a true humanist who lived by the values and ideas espoused in his writings. Nevertheless the film's hardly a work of hagiography, as we learn of Ebert's arrogance and desperate need for attention.
German director Werner Herzog rightly called Ebert a "soldier of cinema"; one who believed in the magic of film to enrich our lives. Mr. Ebert's reviews shaped the way I watch movies and provided an invaluable educational resource for a kid crazy about movies. Life Itself is a poignant and fitting tribute to its subject.