What stands out in Steve James’ engrossing documentary on Roger Ebert is not so much Ebert’s skill and status as a movie reviewer, but his absolute love of life. It appears Ebert almost fell into his craft, found he had a knack for it (so much so he was awarded a Pulitzer), and thereafter, became a cultural icon, along with “frienemy” Gene Siskel, changing the way film criticism was perceived both by the public and Hollywood. But when we are introduced to Ebert, he is in the midst of yet another of his trying medical travails near the end. Cancer has robbed him of his jaw (and, cruelly, his ability to speak), but he types ferociously and utilizes a voice-activated program to communicate. And the prominent feature of his personality is not intellectual or esoteric; it is a lust for people and ideas.
We learn Ebert was a wunderkind college editor, then a hard-drinking Chicago newspaperman who swore off booze after one-too-many benders in his 30s, finding love in his 50s with a woman who already had children. Ebert is also revealed as a know-it-all and, at times, petulant and self-important. As James’s demonstrates, he was also a caring man, one whose passion was broad enough to encompass not only cinema but simple discussion and engagement.
Ebert has never been my favorite reviewer simply because I found him so mercurial, one moment intolerant of the offbeat, another celebrating it; I was looking for standards and signposts, and he wouldn’t oblige. But his best reviews were such a mix of accessible, earthy and honest, my expectations were unrealistic. Ebert could also smell a rat, and he had no problem going against the grain. Take, for example, his review of the highly touted anti-Vietnam War documentary Hearts and Minds, a celebrated work that greatly influenced documentary filmmaking. Ebert grants the film its due, but his caution, in 1974, is prescient:
My problem in writing about “Hearts and Minds” is how to go about separating the film’s images — which are sometimes heartbreakingly tragic, sometimes cruelly revealing — from the craft of the film itself. Here is a documentary about Vietnam that doesn’t really level with us on a simple technical level. If we know something about how footage is obtained and how editing can make points, it sometimes looks like propaganda, using such standard tricks as the juxtaposition of carefully selected but unrelated material to create a desired effect. And yet, in scene after scene, the raw material itself is so devastating that it brushes the tricks aside. . . The problem is that the film is at such pains to make its points that it doesn’t trust us to find our own connections. We see a tearful graveside scene in North Vietnam, for example, with a widow trying to throw herself onto her husband’s coffin, and then we get Westmoreland soberly explaining that Orientals don’t place a high value on life. In this and his other comments about what he calls “the Oriental philosophy,” Westmoreland comes over as not only racist and stupid, but incredibly lacking in awareness of how his remarks will sound. This man ran a war for years in a country he didn’t begin to understand. And yet placing these two pieces of film together — and the editing in “Hearts and Minds” consistently makes similar matches — finally only undermines the film’s effectiveness. It’s too heavy-handed. We’re bludgeoned by the point of view, we don’t like the feeling of manipulation we get. Yet there are scenes here of incredible power, even for a nation which watched this war on television every evening.
James’ documentary also shows Ebert to be the kindest and most giving of mentors and friends, which reminds me of Will Leitch’s piece on Ebert upon his death. Leitch had edited the same college newspaper as Ebert, and Ebert’s generosity to him was astounding:
Because I was 19, I took this as an invitation to keep bothering Ebert, and over the next two years, I emailed him regularly, with questions about my career, with movie reviews I’d written and hoped he would offer tips on, with requests for advice on writing, on life, on the tough job market that awaited me upon graduation. Ebert wrote back to every single one, with lengthy and heartfelt missives that were far more than a snot-nosed kid clearly getting off on Knowing Roger Ebert deserved. I have no idea why he did it. He told me “that this is important to you as it is, that’s a very large percentage of what you need, really.” He emphasized that such ephemera like “career” and “success” were mostly beside the point. “Just write, get better, keep writing, keep getting better. It’s the only thing you can control.”
Ebert even recommended me for a job stringing movie reviews for the suburban Daily Southtown newspaper. For the first one — the Robert Downey Jr. movie Restoration — I borrowed my friend Mike’s car and drove up to a Chicago screening room. I didn’t know Chicago well and of course got lost, just sneaking into the theater right as the lights were going down. After the movie, I walked out to the elevator, and standing there, was Ebert.
“Sir,” I said, talking very fast. “I’m Will Leitch, from the DI. I wanted to thank you and say what an honor it is to me. I can’t thank you enough for what you’ve done. I promise not to abuse it.”
Ebert was bigger then, and his hand was meaty and sweaty.
“Of course, Will, I’m happy to help you in any way. You have talent, and anyone from the DI is a friend of mine,” he said. “Actually, I’m going to be in Champaign in a few weeks for a screening at the New Art, and I’d love to meet with you and some of the staff beforehand. Is Papa Del’s still open?”
Two weeks later, Ebert was entertaining me, my friend Mike and a few select editors — the fight to be included at the dinner was fierce and still angers some today — at Papa Del’s. (We had four pizzas, and Ebert ate 1 1/2 of them.) He took our questions, we talked about journalism and movies (he and I had a fierce debate as to whether or not Harry Connick Jr. was in the Holly Hunter movie Copycat: I was right, though nobody had an iPhone to prove it at the time), and he told us stories about the old days without ever romanticizing his good old days at the expense of ours. He was not Roger Ebert, the guy on television. He was just the fun guy eating pizza, dishing about Gene Siskel — he absolutely could not understand how that man could care so much about the Chicago Bulls, a stupid sports team — and having a grand time. We sat there for three hours. None of us wanted to leave, including him.
At the end of the night, Ebert took me aside. “I understand it’s your birthday tomorrow, Will,” he said. (It was. I was turning 20.) “Well, I have a gift for you. It’s a scoop. You can run it in the paper tomorrow. I received a print of a movie that’s not out yet to show at the theater tomorrow. You can have the exclusive: It’s Mighty Aphrodite, the new Woody Allen film.”
Yet, as Leitch shamefully admits, with the web exploding, “we [were] young turks . . . ready to kill our idols . . . we all thought we were hot shit.” In that vein, Leitch later wrote a piece for the web magazine Ironminds entitled, “I Am Sick Of Roger Ebert’s Fat F—-ing Face”, the thesis of the piece being that Ebert’s TV work was hurting his writing (with a few fat jibes included).
Ebert’s response, and his later correspondence with Leitch, is an epitaph to which we all should aspire:
I have always tried to help you, and you know that. I am not sure what you were trying to do with your piece — if you object to me being on television, there is a dial to the right that will take care of that problem for you — what issues you might be dealing with, but I am certain you will grow to regret writing it someday. If you were trying to make a point, I fear you are not in control of your instrument. I wonder if you feel shitty this morning, now that that piece is out there. I know that I do.
Leitch wrote him back, completely backing down, apologizing, but the damage obviously had been done. I did feel shitty, instantly, and have ever since. A year later, I was working for Brill’s Content’s All-Star Newspaper . . . where I ran an early incarnation of a blog, linking to the best newspaper writers in the country every morning. As the job required me to do with all the writers we selected, I sheepishly emailed Ebert to tell him he was on the roster. He wrote back:
Does this mean you’re no longer sick of my fat fucking face? 🙂
It’s an honor. I hope you’re well.
(Available on Netflix streaming)