by Andy Crump
“He’s a nice guy. But he’s not that nice.” This thought is presented to us early on in Life Itself, Steve James’ loving, peering documentary about the life, times, and passing of Roger Ebert. Over the course of 2 hours, James takes it upon himself to explore this point in earnest; he paints a picture of the late, great critic that is by and large favorable, but contains sufficient warts to steer the film away from the realm of the puff piece. Maybe James’ egalitarian approach isn’t necessary, though. Maybe, in the end, Ebert really was that nice.
Yet Life Itself isn’t content with simply feeding into our cultural reverence for Ebert’s legacy (even though he certainly had his share of detractors). The film does what any good documentary should arguably do – it examines its subject from multiple angles, steering around bias like an iceberg in the hopes of coming to a conclusion that’s objective rather than subjective. But such is the power of Ebert’s amicable magnetism that even at its least flattering, Life Itself feels like fluff. You will not watch this movie and discover a portrait of the man that will upend your opinion of him. You will gaze upon James’ work in stunned awe over his searing, unflinching brand of cinejournalism.