To call Roger Ebert one of the great populist film critics is to damn him with faint praise. When he died last year he left behind both a body of writing and a way of looking at movies that opened them wide to the world. So many critics write to show off how much they know. Ebert wrote to let you in. Director Steve James captures that quality, and more, in Life Itself, his documentary about Ebert's life and, notably, these last few years of it, after recurring health problems and multiple surgeries left the critic unable to speak. That didn't mean Ebert lost his voice: In some ways we all got to know him much better, through his blog and his Twitter feed. James gives us a sense of a man who kept reinventing life as he went along.
Life Itself is also a portrait of two marriages: Ebert met his wife, Chaz, when he was 50; their union was tested by the most devastating of circumstances, but James captures the casual, bantering devotion between them. Ebert's "other" marriage wasn't so harmonious: Most non-Chicagoans got to know Ebert through the television show he co-hosted with rival Chicago Tribune critic Gene Siskel. James captures their friction but he also shows how all that mutual abrasion, year after year, made the two men almost closer than family.
Life Itself seems about as comprehensive as it could be, though perhaps it doesn't adequately stress Ebert's generosity toward younger critics. What always struck me -- beyond the self-evident fact that he was such a marvelous, straightforward, open-hearted writer -- was his capacity for delight.
To call Roger Ebert one of the great populist film critics is to damn him with faint praise. Though he took pride in working for the scrappier of the two Chicago dailies, the Sun-Times, and though we do have him to thank — or curse — for popularizing the thumbs-up/thumbs-down...