EVEN THOUGH Roger Ebert died little more than a year ago, it's already becoming difficult to comprehend how much affection he engendered. After all, we're talking about a film critic here—and film critics are typically reprehensible, pompous trolls. Ebert was a rare thing, though: a critic who was also a populist, whose love for cinema and life seeped into every aspect of his writing. His aptitude with words made him a great journalist; his keen curiosity made him a great mind.
And he's a remarkable subject for a documentary. Steve James' Life Itself touches upon Ebert's youth and his years at the Chicago Sun-Times. Along the way, Ebert wrote the screenplay for Beyond the Valley of the Dolls and (unrelated) won a Pulitzer. He also hosted a series of television programs with fellow Chicago critic Gene Siskel, and the movie makes no bones about how the two rivals initially despised each other, before becoming good friends years later.
Presumably, Life Itself was intended as an overview of Ebert's life (itself), but his death overshadows the rest of the film. The final third is dedicated to his failing health; in 2006, Ebert lost his lower jaw to cancer, and it's wrenching to watch this bombastic, loquacious man robbed of his ability to speak. During his final days, we're witness to some very difficult, very personal times for Ebert and his wife, Chaz. When Ebert's end does come, it's truly upsetting.
Indeed, the biggest complaint about Life Itself is that it doesn't contain enough of Roger Ebert. (By necessity, Life Itself's narration—taken from Ebert's 2011 memoir of the same name—is performed by an Ebert sound-alike.) With its unflinching focus on Ebert's painful final days, it's a bit of a downer. But it's also a celebration of a complicated, heroic man, and as such, it's well worth seeing. I bet Ebert would agree.