Bombastic, charismatic and iconic through and through, Roger Ebert was the Muhammad Ali of film criticism, a man whose face and voice became synonymous with our modern pastime of going to the movies. He was the champ: With a review in The Chicago Sun-Times or a little wiggle of his thumb on the syndicated TV show At the Movies, Ebert possessed the power to single-handedly revive a flailing filmmaker’s career or curse a new movie to oblivion. And, like Ali, the man was fallible and all-too-human, prone to bouts of ego bloat and, in the sunset of his life, a victim of a vicious disease that ended him.
But victim, when applied to Ebert, is a relative term, as is amply — and, perhaps, too amply — shown in the new documentary Life Itself, based on his memoir of the same name. Working in close collaboration with director Steve James, Ebert tells the story of his life, and a huge chunk of the film is dedicated to the Pulitzer-winning critic’s epic and courageous fight against the thyroid cancer that eventually forced the removal of his lower jaw, leaving him incapable of talking, eating or drinking.
The footage of these final years, which Ebert demands must be included in the film, are intimate, moving and brutal to behold, but they skew the narrative, eclipsing major moments in a long and controversial career. Ebert, a recovered alcoholic, was a classic control freak, and watching the film you practically can see him wrest the reins from James, making him less director than curator.
And yet, it is just this compulsive insertion of self and will that drove Ebert’s career, and to a large extent informed the brilliance of his work. Life Itself, despite its flaws, is a fascinating document of a complicated artist whose work was, by turns, righteously opinionated, accessibly populist and always, at bottom, disarmingly frank and humane. At the core of the film is Ebert’s relationship with Gene Siskel, the rival Chicago Tribune critic who became his sparring partner on the beloved show that brought both men to global recognition. Their relationship is the stuff of deep drama, a clash of titans that crackles with antagonism, intellectual one-upmanship, wicked humor and the grudging love of brothers.