This moving profile of the late, great US movie critic Roger Ebert – famous for his ‘Thumbs up, thumbs down’ signature on a long-running TV show with fellow Chicago critic Gene Siskel – works on two levels: as an appreciation of his vast impact over several decades and as an unflinching peek into a cancer patient’s final months. It will be hard for some viewers to focus on Ebert’s ravaged, flopping jaw (the result of earlier treatment for cancer); director Steve James is after the kind of warts-and-all portrait he delivered with his mighty 1994 doc ‘Hoop Dreams’. But the film gains immeasurably from these hospital scenes, as Ebert strains under a suction pipe or in physical rehab. He always rebounds with a wisecrack communicated via talk box or on paper. And when he loses his temper, that’s important to see, too.
Ebert was a sparrer, a happy combatant, and the movies were always a springboard to a conversation. His life’s work is well represented here, beginning with some gloriously geeky photos of the cherub-cheeked Illinois newsman, promoted to film critic in his mid-twenties after making tough calls on the editorial floor. James includes plenty of excerpts of Ebert’s approachable writing. The documentary is smart to include dissenters – especially Chicago’s revered alt-journalist Jonathan Rosenbaum – who rail against thumbs-up reductionism.
Still, the doc gains its universal impact in smaller, earthier revelations. Martin Scorsese comes close to tears speaking of Ebert’s encouragement during a dark phase in his life. The city of Chicago, especially its late-night watering holes, becomes a window into the off-camera moments of a raconteur and showboat. Ebert’s alcoholism is addressed unflinchingly, as is the silver lining that emerged from his defeating drink: meeting future wife Chaz. Best are the offhand remarks from a gallery of beautifully crude Chicago friends: this is the only film in which you’ll hear someone growl about one of Ebert’s critical contemporaries, ‘Fuck Pauline Kael’.