The plot line is familiar to anyone who grew up in the early-90s or earlier: a kid from Urbana, Illinois grows up into an assertive newspaperman. He becomes one of Chicago's most popular film reviewers and gets a TV show where he battles hilariously and crabbily another popular film critic. Together the two critics make film reviewing democratic and popularize the phrase "Two Thumbs Up." He meets his true love and develops a strong relationship with her and her family, but then develops throat cancer.
Although the bare outline is known to many of us, what richness we experience the interviews with Ebert before he died! The movie starts with Ebert in a rehabilitation facility towards the end of his life. He experienced a mysterious hairline fracture that had no known external cause. Later you will learn it was a recurrence of cancer. Ebert's countenance was ravaged before his death ?his jaw is missing?but you will move past the unease quickly because he is, even with his computer generated voice, so willing to be vulnerable that you can't help but want to be engaged with his onscreen presence.
The documentary follows a talking heads approach. We learn that Ebert was principled and opinionated even while running his college newspaper and how he happened into the work of film criticism. We learn of Ebert's relationship with Scorsese and how he co-wrote the screenplay for 1970's Beyond the Valley of the Dolls. More interesting is a segment on how Ebert championed Errol Morris's fascinating 1978 documentary Gates of Heaven (about the pet cemetery business), giving one of our most fascinating filmmakers a career by talking about his little-shown film over and over again. And there are the interviews with Chaz, the last one of which brought me to tears.
It's also inspiring to see Ebert's unflinching willingness to engage with anything and everything. It is a quality I noticed in a few of his blog posts before he died. A number of commenters, angry about his political positions, told him to stick to movie reviews (rather than engage with environmental issues) and he refused. I was never a fan of the "thumbs up" "thumbs down" approach, which seemed to me to be a reductive way to watch movies. But the spirit of his work?that movie criticism could and should be accessible, even in connection with wildly artistic movies? is definitely an approach that has brought weirder movies to a general audience and helped democratize filmmaking, which I wholeheartedly support.
If you love movies, you should see this movie. If you're reluctant to drive up to San Francisco or Berkeley to see it, you can stream it through AT&T U-Verse's On Demand.