By Max Winter | Press Play July 4, 2014 at 5:31AM
I almost didn’t write this review. This was not because I didn’t appreciate the film at hand, but because a question was nagging at me. It’s a question that I ask before I write any treatment of a book or a film, and it runs something like, What can I bring to this piece that will both serve the work and be memorable for its readers, personal in some sense? In the month leading up to the film’s release, an intimidating number of reviews have appeared of it. In the most notable of those reviews, the reviewer has a relationship with Roger Ebert, the film’s subject, either by dint of personal acquaintance or lifelong worship, and so the reviews express heartfelt respect mingled with critical assessment. He was a great nurturer of film critics, around the world, in fact—and someone who maintained contact with a vast network of people throughout his life, right up to its end. And so I was wondering, what can I bring to this piece that hasn’t already been brought? Where’s my 50 years of film criticism? 25? 10? 5? Who the heck am I to be writing this? Put more gently, the question was: what in the film would speak to me, trigger a response that might be interesting to both me and to readers? I might like the film, but what in it might flip the switch, give me an entry into it?
As it turns out, quite a bit.
To begin, there’s the pure story of it. The film starts with intensely wrenching footage of Ebert in the hospital. As most who know anything about his life already know, by the end of his life, due to numerous complications that had begun in 2002 with cancer in his thyroid gland, he had no lower jaw, he couldn’t drink, he couldn’t eat, he couldn’t swallow, and he couldn't speak. He was fed through a tube, and periodically he had to undergo a painful process called “suction,” during which the look of pain in his eyes is quite hard to watch. After this beginning, though, quite quickly, we ease into a very different sort of film. A rolling, ambling melody on the soundtrack, with pianos and horns and drums mingling in an easy way, pushes us forward, in a slow and graceful manner. We’ve seen the end of his life, and now we’re seeing the beginning. It’s a great story, told here by director Steve James at a reasonable, comfortable pace, as if to make sure he included every last correct detail--but at the same time it is never tedious or boring. As a young man, growing up in Chicago, Ebert wanted to be a journalist, and so he become one, pursuing the career as aggressively as he could. The earliest writings we sample are from the newspaper of the University of Illinois, and they display the same intensity and communicativeness that would serve him throughout his life, as he chronicles such 1960s mileposts as the assassination of JFK and the infamous bombing of a church in Birmingham, Alabama, among other events. Then we watch his rise to prominence through his career as a film critic at the Chicago Sun-Times, lasting through different ownerships, always a stolid employee, filing his reviews dutifully as the paper sorted and resorted itself, and then winning the Pulitzer in 1983. Up until this point, Ebert has been a model of both focus and of living with enthusiasm; his colleagues describe his ability to simply conceptualize a review and write it down, often in half an hour’s time. We also learn that, if not always a prince among men (due to heavy carousing, sleeping with prostitutes, and other kinds of debauchery), he was someone who was always lively, and a remarkable storyteller, not above swinging from a lamp at O’Rourke’s, his favorite bar in Chicago. We learn, too, about his realization of his significant drinking problem, and his subsequent abstinence after 1979.
The story shifts, then, bringing us to one of its most poignant parts, the description of his relationship with Gene Siskel, his longtime partner for the TV show, Siskel and Ebert at the Movies. One is Ivy-educated, the other not; one hobnobs with Hugh Hefner, the other could never. The relationship is like one you might find in a novel: multi-layered, storied, full of witty repartee, theatrical, at its funniest during out-takes where Ebert mocks Siskel’s delivery and Siskel mocks Ebert’s arrogance, at its saddest when we realize the two never fully expressed their respect for each other to each other. After many years of striving for national broadcast, the show finally achieves it, and the two become the most widely known film reviewers in American history. In a further personal ascent, indeed a milestone, Ebert marries the charismatic, compassionate Chaz Ebert, at age 50. A life of hard work, then, leads to a very happy marriage. Next, though, tragedy strikes. In another kind of story, this would be called a turning point, at which the protagonist must make a decision which will affect the story’s outcome. Here, Ebert is given a tremendous obstacle to handle, in the form of his thyroid cancer. Where most would buckle, Ebert decides to take another course, one anyone could learn from.
Survival is difficult, either at the most basic level of life or in a career of any sort. Several qualities are needed: aggression, toughness, and patience are three of them. Also, though, one needs flexibility, the ability to take things as they come, roll with the punches, and move forward. Ebert certainly possessed that quality. As his sickness worsened, it’s no secret to his fans that his review output grew, primarily through his website. We learn that he was a huge advocate of social media, from its earliest days forward, and that his Twitter feed was legendary; we can only think that he understood his need to communicate, to interact, was part of his life force, and that it fed him as he continued to work, and he used these avenues because they were readily available to him, and he recognized that he had no other choice. Even in his last hours, he was emailing with the filmmaker; one of his last acts on the planet was a blog post. James, throughout the film, does a wonderful job of showing the difficulties of incapacity, both for Ebert and for those around him: the pain of walking, after a hip injury; the awkwardness of having to write statements down on paper, the urgency of expression sometimes making him near-frantic; and the sadness of not being able to enjoy the things he might have once enjoyed. It’s to James’ great credit, though, that these moments aren’t sentimental in the least; James’ camera, indeed, his entire aesthetic skews away from sentiment. What also helps to ward off sentimentality is a basic truth about Ebert himself, which would make sentiment somewhat impossible: he was of a very particular tribe, that of doers, of makers, people who put things into the world that they’ve crafted, themselves. His illness didn’t remove him from that tribe. Why? Because writing, projecting his thought outwards, seems to have been as natural to him as breathing.
Here’s the thing: whether you’re a film reviewer, a painter, a poet, a composer, a ceramicist, a filmmaker, or a painter of highway signs, these things you’ve made last, after you’re dead. Ebert’s life is a testimony to the importance, if you have such a talent, of exercising that privilege to the greatest of your ability, regardless of adversity. This film has been called many things: touching, moving, inspiring, saddening, fascinating, entertaining, and heartbreaking, among others. And it is all of these things. Almost more than these, though, it is sobering. At the time of this writing, this reviewer is what many might call over-extended, numbering editorship of this publication, co-editorship of a small press whose responsibilities grow by the day, partial editorship of a literary magazine considered by many to be a leader in its particular arena, not to mention daily deadlines as a freelance editor and writer, and above and beyond those, continuing to write poems, among his daily preoccupations—and yet I would not give up any one of these things for any other. And I would especially not give them up after watching this film--if nothing else, the film shows that the rewards of doing, of striving, are far too great to forsake.
Max Winter is the Editor of Press Play.