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updated: 7/3/2014 11:27 AM

Thumbs-up: Ebert documentary a revealing, personal portrait

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  • Chicago film critic Roger Ebert enjoys a movie during Steve James' excellent documentary "Life Itself."

    Chicago film critic Roger Ebert enjoys a movie during Steve James' excellent documentary "Life Itself."

  • Video: Life Itself trailer


To my knowledge, Roger Ebert only bent the truth once: to protect his wife Chaz's privacy by dodging the circumstances under which he met her -- at an AA meeting.

This is one of many revelations about the late Chicago Sun-Times film critic in Steve James' unflinchingly honest, highly detailed and personally revealing biographical documentary "Life Itself."

"Life Itself" accurately captures this man I sat with (three seats to his right) in the Lake Street Screening Room since long before the turn of the 21st century.

More than that, "Life Itself" captures his spirit -- dynamic, optimistic, intelligent, compassionate and fearless -- without brushing over his flaws, that dissipated as he grew older.

Using interviews (including a rare moment of Martin Scorsese losing it), archival materials and wonderfully narrated passages from Ebert's published 2011 biography "Life Itself" (delivered in perfect Ebertian vocal qualities by actor Stephen Stanton), James' movie goes straight for the heart, mind and gut.

James treats his subject with tasteful respect. He might have even softballed some of the more personal and delicate issues involving Ebert's fragile health.

But the irascible critic, who became quite efficient at firing off written notes after losing his lower jaw and voice to cancer, asserted the journalistic value of unadorned honesty.

So, we get unsettling shots of Ebert in the hospital, clearly in pain as a suction device clears his throat. Scenes show us a man in a wheelchair, banging a pad of paper out of frustration.

These are raw moments that humanize the most prominent movie critic in the world. And Roger Ebert was nothing if not extremely human.

James, the multi-honored filmmaker who directed "Hoop Dreams" (a work championed by Ebert and fellow critic Gene Siskel) and the more recent "The Interrupters," started this movie in December of 2012, only four months before Ebert's death on April 4.

It opens with Ebert and wife Chaz at a Chicago rehab hospital where the critic has come to treat a hairline hip fracture he has no idea how he got.

"Life Itself" wisely avoids a chronological rehash of the critic's background. It dives into his life as an immersive, almost impressionist experience, whipping through his formative years as editor of the University of Illinois' campus newspaper where he championed civil rights and wrote articles teaming with intelligence and literary flair.

The film whisks us through the early years at the Sun-Times where emerging star Ebert held court, not just in the office, but at local bars where his passion for good drinks and fine talk flourished.

Ebert's enthusiasm for independent filmmakers and buxom women resulted in befriending and working with nudie king Russ Meyer. The critic penned Meyer's X-rated cult movie "Beyond the Valley of the Dolls."

Of course, a sizable portion of "Life Itself" is properly devoted to Ebert and Siskel's culture-changing television show that began on WTTW as "At a Theater Near You" before evolving into "Siskel & Ebert and the Movies" for Walt Disney.

"Life Itself" traces not only the show's evolution (with hilarious outtakes and commentary from producer Thea Flaum, Chaz Ebert, Siskel's widow Marlene Iglitz and critics Jonathan Rosenbaum and Richard Corliss), it follows the story of two huge intelligent egos who hated, hated, hated, hated each other at the start, but ultimately grew to become friends.

Yet, Siskel kept his own struggle with brain cancer a secret from his TV partner. Ebert, deeply wounded that he never had an opportunity to say goodbye to his friend, vowed he would never keep secrets about his own life.

So, we have this marvelous chronicle of Ebert's last weeks on earth, a testimonial to a writer and critic who was utterly ageless when he died at 70.

At a time when most men would have graciously retired from the public stage after debilitating surgery, Roger Ebert went booster rockets, hash-tagging, blogging, critiquing, supporting his annual film festival in downstate Champaign, creating a worldwide network of young "far-flung" film correspondents and watching movies.

Ebert was raised Catholic, but in his later years, abandoned his faith and became a self-described agnostic.

This part of the critic's life did not make the cut into James' movie. Neither did Sun-Times columnist Richard Roeper, hand-picked by the Eberts to sit in the critic's chair on the TV show. (As James has said, all the good material can't fit into a single movie.)

But before he bailed on the belief in a higher power, had Ebert ever considered that had he not succumbed to alcoholism -- and possessed the strength to do something about it -- he might never have met Chaz, the woman who saved him?

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