There’s a scene early in Life Itself when a hospitalized Roger Ebert, missing his lower jaw after multiple surgeries for thyroid cancer, needs his throat suctioned. The camera holds steady as Ebert winces through the procedure, but then an email box pops up on the screen. “great stuff!!!!!” types Ebert, no longer able to speak. “I’m happy we got a great thing that nobody ever sees: suction.” Director Steve James (Hoop Dreams, The Interrupters) blends an intimate end-of-life story with Ebert’s wide-ranging biography: precocious college newspaper editor, recovering drunk, screenwriter of the schlocky Beyond the Valley of the Dolls, friend and critic of Hollywood’s biggest names. But for all of Ebert’s exploits, it’s the private moments James captures, like his increasingly brief email responses as cancer slowly wins out, that endure.
This review originally appeared in our September/October issue of Mother Jones.