“Life Itself” (2014): A Thumb Not So Up (Review)

Life Itself, the print autobiography, was a very compelling read for two reasons.  First, it was written by a journalist, a Pulitzer Prize winner who had as much of a “way with words” as anyone else you’ve ever read.  Second, it included some interviews with actors, directors, and others in the film industry, a compelling topic on its own.  It was also the first autobiography I’ve read written by someone whom I actually knew, even if only to a small degree.  Life Itself, the movie, falls far short of the book experience, but there was a good/bad reason for that.

A journalist’s job is to follow the story.  Initially, the book was the story.  However, during the course of filming and following Ebert through his daily routine, the “story” changed when his condition deteriorated irrecoverably.  That kind of story, however, is a temporary one.  It happens, it gets coverage, and then we revert back to the person’s overall life instead of the event of death.  Life Itself, the film, directed by Steve James (Hoop Dreams, The Interrupters) tries to tell two stories at once but doesn’t sufficiently tell either.

What is most unique about Ebert’s career is how he followed his childhood drive to be a news reporter and accidentally became the most recognizable film critic ever and the only one with a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.  When only in elementary school he typed stories on sheets of paper, titled it “The Washington Street Times” for the street where he lived, and pedaled his bike to deliver it to local residents.  Something like that takes fabulously supportive parents, the likes of which might be hard to find today.

That drive stayed with him another 60-plus years as he bridged the time of city-paper reporters holding cigarettes while smacking manual typewriters into the Internet-age of writers who can speak a story into MSWord through smartphone while driving and revise it later on a tablet.  That he went one day from scratching out the “police blotter,” a throw-away column about local crimes, to replacing a retiring film critic the very next day because nobody else was available, is about the most compelling and fortunate coincidence in the history journalism.

Forgive my insensitivity, but not compelling is his special wheelchair or struggles with medical workers about how he should climb a set of stairs.  Not compelling, without proper context, is the painful tube snaked down his throat each day or the exhausting physical therapy.  Not that those things aren’t important, of course they are, but to pick and choose from 70 years of life and mix that with an excruciating health regimen only dilutes both stories and stretches the whole film to a hefty and unnecessary two hours.  That’s where James went wrong, allowing a news story to overtake a biography, because too much “past” was sacrificed for too much “present.”

Compelling, but not mentioned, is that in the early days of internet message boards, Ebert once said in a speech, and I paraphrase, “So far, the Internet is nothing more than a high-tech place for college kids to tell each other that they suck.”  Ironically, years later it was the “new and improved” Internet that allowed the third stage of his career to blossom, which is how hundreds of thousands, perhaps millions of people worldwide came to rediscover him after he had stepped down from his television career.

Few people outside of the film industry were aware of Ebert until his partnerships with Gene Siskel and others for various television shows such as Sneak Previews and At the Movies, in which each week’s most significant film releases were debated.  After nearly 30 years on the small screen, he had become the loudest, most significant film voice in the world, until it was his voice that was taken by thyroid cancer.  The clips of Siskel and Ebert in Life Itself were great and could have filled an hour on their own.  The clips of Siskel’s wife lending a handful of unkind words towards Ebert were unexpected but not necessarily unfair.  There was nothing wrong with how highly she praised her late husband, but it could have been done without trying to take Ebert down.

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One of the more fascinating moments of the book version was Ebert’s gnawing suspicion that his mother might not have been his birth mother.  He believed one of his aunts might have actually given birth to him, and on that aunt’s death bed she seemed to be attempting to tell him something, but she passed before uttering anything significant.  Not a word of that was in the film, but it should have been.

Also fascinating was the influence he had on the career of Martin Scorsese.  In a much-too-short interview, Scorsese tearfully explains how he had given up on film, assumed his career was over, until comments from Ebert gave him the courage to continue.  Even when Ebert panned a subsequent film, Scorsese had learned to accept his mistakes and knew he could do better – but only because of Ebert’s encouragement.

I was involved in many online debates with Ebert, a professor from Michigan, an engineer from Illinois, and a few others.  The most common topic was a combination of the existence of heaven, life after death, and creationism vs. intelligent design.  We were all woven by the connections of these topics, and one comment thread was literally halted by software limitations after 2,640 posts and over 239,000 words.  It was later restarted in a new thread.  Ebert wrote endlessly on the topic that fascinated him, but not one mention of that was in the film, and that leads to one last detail of his life that I have yet to see mentioned anywhere – not even by those who now manage his website.

Ebert was not an atheist, although those opposing him in debate often called him that.  He was more towards a deist, believing that if there is a supreme being, it was not directly involved in anyone’s daily life.  Perhaps a grand designer started all this mess, but he or she did was not responsible for any regular maintenance.  Ebert did not believe in an afterlife or anything more than “fading to black” when our time is done.  That’s where the last compelling piece is overlooked.

He died less than a month before Ebertfest, 2013.  If you don’t know what Ebertfest is, look it up.  Shortly before he died, he made a slight alteration of the film schedule to include The Ballad of Narayama (1958), an odd Japanese film about a mountain village in which it was customary to carry the elderly, at the age of 70, and leave them high in the mountains to die.  Snow fell on the dying people at the end of the film.

the-ballard-of-NARAYAMA

The Ballad of Narayama  was shown on Friday, April 19.  On April 18 and 20, the respective weather was sunny, 63 and 50.  But on the 19th, as we stood in line outside the theater to see that particular film, the temperature abruptly dropped and snow began to fall.  Ebert died at age 70.  That’s fascinating.  That’s compelling.  That’s what I would have preferred to see in Life Itself.

I can’t recommend the film to general audiences, only strong students of film, but I highly – repeat – highly recommend the book.

The Good:  clips with Mr. Siskel
The Bad: aiming for two stories, hitting 1/2 of each
The Unnecessary:  Mrs. Siskel

Overall:  6.0/10

Written By Rich

Rich is a retired English teacher and author of two published books: When the Mirror Breaks, a collection of short stories, and Connecting Flight, a novel about two lost ghosts. His film education has been mainly due to watching Siskel & Ebert through high school and college, and he is a regular attendee at Ebertfest, Roger Ebert’s annual film festival in Illinois every April. With all this free time on his hands, you’d think he would see more films, but red wine seems to keep getting in the way.


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  • Tom

    Very interesting and different take on this, but I’m very appreciative to read this very honest and open review of it. Being of a younger crowd of watching films, I have not had anywhere near the kinds of attachment to this prolific figure as some others have, but I have such a fondness for film reviewing it would be a disservice for me to avoid this film, I think. Even if there are some glaring omissions here. Then again, I may not notice them as much. But it’s good to be informed there’s some stuff missing from this narrative. Great read Rich. As always

  • rich

    thanks. reasons are why i often try to add what segment of audience might enjoy a film, even if i did not, which is why i added the part about “strong students of film.” that’d clearly include you.