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Life Itself ****1/2

Often, a movie, particularly a documentary, sends me to the book upon which the film is based.

And usually, almost always, I find the written work better than the film version.

In fact, I don’t think I can name more than a handful of films that I found superior to the written ‘version.’

The current documentary, Life Itself, about the life and ultimately the death of Pulitzer Prize (1975) winning film critic (Chicago Sun-Times) Roger Ebert, is one of the instances in which I’d choose the film over the memoir.

The memoir is good, particularly the latter part. It is well written, honest, and informative.

The documentary is excellent, bringing to life what is in the memoir (similar title) but allowing the viewer to almost participate in the life and death of Ebert.

Directed by Steve James (Hoop Dreams) and featuring Ebert, his wife Chaz, and Gene Siskel, Life Itself is a mixture of a profile of Ebert, of a love story of Roger and Chaz, of the relationship (love-hate?) of Ebert and Siskel, and most of all, an inside view of a man who chooses ‘to go gentle into that goodnight.’

For me, it is particularly this end of life story that I found so moving.

20131121070019-SSTRONG007_Ebert_030Briefly, because of cancer and three failed surgeries, Ebert loses his ability to eat, to drink, to speak, and thus to continue his TV reviews of film, all things he loved. Additionally, he became disfigured by the loss of his jaw and became physically disabled too.

Yet Ebert refused to be humbled or curtailed by his misfortunes. He learned to blog and continued to use a computer to communicate. Most of all, he was able to be involved in life until the very end of his life.

Steve James, who began filming Ebert just five months before his death, captures all of this, especially Ebert’s courage and Chaz’s fierce loyalty to him.

Ultimately, it is the very personal, and heroic, story of how a man and his wife choose to deal with what would likely crush most of us.