Roger Ebert, who died in April 2013, was an old-school newspaperman who worked at the Chicago Sun-Times for 47 years. All but the first of those years was spent as its film critic. He had round black specs that resembled the inky circles a person gets around the eyes after looking into booby-trapped binoculars. He had an eternally boyish face—plump and circular in the first half of his life, definitively square and blockish in the second. His hair always looked like it had just been tousled by a passing aunt.
His style was easygoing and unobstructed by his considerable erudition. When he made references and allusions in his writing, he didn’t use them as obstacles to place in his readers’ way but as stepping stones to reach another level of access and interpretation into the context of the film under discussion. He was a plain writer with a warmly inclusive style that told readers: Come on in, the water’s fine. His sentences were not bullying or forceful—certainly not in the way he could be in person on the popular syndicated TV review show where he would bicker and snipe with Gene Siskel, a rival from the Chicago Tribune. A good example of his writing style, quoted on-screen in Life Itself, a new documentary about Ebert, is this sign-off from his 1967 review of Bonnie and Clyde: “The fact that the story is set 35 years ago doesn’t mean a thing. It had to be set sometime. But it was made now and it’s about us.”
The brilliant documentary-maker Steve James, who was one of the three directors of the 1994 masterpiece Hoop Dreams, begins the film by showing Ebert in hospital. Cancer has taken his jaw, and he has long been unable to eat or drink or speak. He communicates through a computerised voice system and, most poignantly, thumbs raised or lowered—the judgement system that he and Siskel invoked, like a pair of pampered Roman emperors, across their various shows together. The phrase “Two thumbs up—Siskel & Ebert” was craved intensely by any studio and distributor releasing a movie in the US, though the film chides them by throwing in the occasional example of times when those thumbs went maddeningly awry: two thumbs up for Speed 2: Cruise Control? For Look Who’s Talking? Two thumbs down wouldn’t have been harsh enough for those movies. Two broken thumbs down maybe.
It’s wise that James hits us with Ebert’s deteriorated health straight off the bat. In narrative terms it gets the shock out of the way. From there, he builds the story of Ebert’s life chronologically, returning us every now and again to that hospital bed, or to Ebert convalescing at home. The strongest parts of the movie are those that deal with the sometimes radioactive relationship between Siskel and Ebert, the latter looking like a ball of dough, the former as stiff and upright as a rolling-pin. In out-takes of the pair recording and fluffing TV spots together, the enmity comes off the screen with an intensity that makes you wince. Both wanted to win every argument. Neither would give any quarter. The critic Richard Corliss correctly described their show as “A sitcom about two guys working as film critics.” But in the latter stages of Siskel’s life (he died from a brain tumour in 1999), the warmth that had always bubbled under in their double-act took precedence. There are some very moving passages here dealing with Ebert’s response to Siskel’s death.
Less impressive is the unchallenged machismo and misogyny of the sandpapery old print colleagues who reflect sourly and ungenerously on Ebert’s taste in women and put the boot into the New Yorker’s Pauline Kael (“Fuck Pauline Kael!”) for having the temerity to be an intelligent woman with talent and influence.
Eventually Life Itself (which borrows its title from Ebert’s own autobiography) cannot help but focus partly on its own making. With Ebert ailing, and James keen to get answers to all the questions he wants to ask, there is tension between the filmmaker and his subject. But Ebert also fights, in his own way, to retain strong authorial rights over the picture. Defending his wish to have news of a recent health problem included on screen, despite his wife’s objections, he tells James: “This is not only your film.” It’s a bittersweet extension of his democratic view of cinema in general: it belongs to all of us.
Life Itself is on release from 14 November.