When I was a kid, I decided — as many of the yet unjaded do — that I wanted my life to be about movies. I wanted to make them, critique them, talk about them, and watch as many of them as I could. The lucky ones don't grow away from this passion; the luckier still get the opportunity to make it a reality. But those occupying that small circle of unparalleled fortune often face something that might cast shade over the golden path that is a life devoted to the art of cinema. That plaguing question, "Does what I'm doing really matter?"
It's not a question that is specific to people who write about film, but it's one that hits our community hard. We're not curing diseases, we're not building houses, we're not defending the wronged or curbing crime. In fact, the average comments section of an article or string of Twitter responses to a hasty remark is wont to suggest that we're actually making people angry. With so much acrimony spawning from the conversations we set forth unto the Internet, we can't help but wonder if we are not only not making the world a better place, but perhaps making it a worse one. Are we further dousing this outrageous planet in hot venom? Are we devoting time that might be better spent building or curing to a plight of emotional infancy? Are we wasting our lives and everybody else's time? Many of us, at one point or another, wonder these things. As far as we can tell from Life Itself, Roger Ebert never did. He always knew that this was a worthwhile pursuit. And even if Ebert didn't always harbor that certainty, the documentary does. From beginning to end, Life Itself is sure that the world needs people like Ebert.
"Like Ebert" would be high praise with which to adorn any movies writer. Still, Life Itself doesn't treat him as an untouchable deity — poking good-natured fun at his audacity, his ego, his rivalry-turned-enmity-turned-friendship with Gene Siskel (their relationship is chronicled in what is probably the most engaging chapter in the movie) — but as a pioneer. An artist in his own right who approached the trade of "criticism" with a new point of view, giving way to a new means of thinking and talking about, and loving, movies altogether. In its portrait of Ebert's anti-establishment devotion to the Chicago Sun-Times, his heated on-air feuds with Siskel, his hearty support of new filmmakers, and his brazen takedown of the very same when they turn in what he considers to be trash (man, how he hated The Color of Money), Life Itself gives us a real character in Ebert.
I do not think it is any documentary's sole mission to sing the praises of its subject. Instead, a good biographical feature is driven to explain why someone made a difference. It wasn't that Ebert was a god, or a hero, or in any outstanding way an anomaly. He was someone — as so many of us who'll flock to this film are, and will be ever more after the inspiring song it sings — so devoted to his craft: the beautiful, wonderful, lucky drive to think about, talk about, write about, and watch movies. Because movies, be they like Life Itself or Boyhood or Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, are simply and essentially worth talking about. Ebert was someone who got that. He was someone worthy of our attention, respect, disapproval (sure, at times), and interest. Ultimately, Life Itself works to remind its viewers of one thing: Ebert is one of us. He's just really good at being one of us.