Directed by Steve James
Music by Joshua Abrams; Cinematography by Dana Kupper; Film Editing by Steve James, David E. Simpson
With Roger Ebert, Chaz Ebert, Gene Siskel, Marlene Siskel, Martin Scorsese, Werner Herzog, Errol Morris, A.O. Scott
In the last few years of his life, Roger Ebert, film critic for The Chicago Sun-Times and famously paired on television with Gene Siskel of The Chicago Tribune on Sneak Previews and At The Movies, was diagnosed with jaw cancer and had to have radical surgical resections of his face. Despite considerable disfigurement and the loss of capacity to eat or speak, Ebert continued to the end of his life to write diligently and energetically, mostly through his blog.
This film, clearly with Ebert’s consent, unhesitatingly reveals the extent of that disfigurement. To watch Ebert gracefully deal with his infirmities, and to know he agreed to share them on camera, is visually unsettling, emotionally moving, and spiritually uplifting.
Stills and footage fill out a richly textured account of Ebert’s life and career. Early success and a Pulitzer Prize for criticism in 1975 embellish a promising future. However, that exuberant beginning shows its vulnerabilities. A barfly who eventually recognizes his alcohol addiction and gives it up for good, Ebert reasserts himself, emerging even more fully as a devoted and talented newspaper film critic. Eventually his celebrity, as cohost with Gene Siskel of the extremely popular Sneak Previews and At The Movies, takes center stage. At the age of fifty his love life blossoms as he marries Chaz Hammelsmith, the devoted partner who will see him through his final two decades.
The Siskel-Ebert story is told movingly by Chaz Ebert and by Siskel’s widow, Marlene, both delightful and interesting women. After watching scenes cut from At The Movies in which thick tension between Siskel and Ebert is evident, Siskel’s widow weighs in. “Gene,” she says, “said Roger was an asshole. But then he said, ‘But, he’s my asshole.'” It’s a delightfully moving and seemingly true representation of the agonistic relation the two exhibited throughout their highly successful mutual television careers. It is all the more moving to consider that, despite their ongoing difficulties, when Ebert got married in the early 1990s, Siskel’s daughters served as flower girls.
Equally charming is a brief interview with Ebert’s step-granddaughter, a disarmingly articulate and graceful young woman upon whom Ebert had a strong influence.
Inspiring and touching, this well-constructed, comprehensive and quite bold documentary gives a vivid sense of a dedicated critic, and of a man courageously facing severe physical and behavioral challenges in the twilight of his life. Writer and director Steve James, perhaps known best for Hoop Dreams (1994), a documentary about two aspiring professional basketball players from inner city Chicago, has done a superb job here of creating a concisely informative account of Ebert’s life, a wonderfully nuanced treatment of his talents, charms and complexities, and a deeply moving and inspirational account of his final years.