By Al Alexander
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I owe my love of film to two men: Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert. They taught me to look at movies as more than just entertainment, but as a multi-sensory form of expression. If not for them and their eponymous TV shows, I doubt I would have ever gotten into the business of film criticism, a field of journalism they took from the job nobody wanted to one of the most sought-after positions in print. And that’s their legacy.

Less obvious is their influence on filmmakers themselves. Names like Martin Scorsese, Werner Herzog and Errol Morris all say they owe a huge debt to Siskel and Ebert, both of whom championed their careers from the very beginning. It’s a group that also includes Steve James, whose “Hoop Dreams” went from obscurity to a household name in a matter of weeks due to the constant drum beating led by Siskel and Ebert. Now, 20 years later, James returns the favor with “Life Itself,” his poignantly rendered tribute to Roger Ebert.

Perhaps I’m too close to the subject to be completely objective, but I gotta tell you, this film devastated me. As a person living with cancer, I drew vast inspiration from Ebert’s brave, on-camera fight against the hideous disease during the final five months of his life. No matter how dire the news, Ebert always manages a quip and a smile. He has cancer, but cancer clearly doesn’t have him, even though at the time of filming it had already robbed him of his three favorite things: the ability to eat, drink and talk.

The plan was for James to film Ebert in his natural habitat: attending screenings, working on his blog, writing reviews and holding court with friends and family. But just as soon as the cameras began to roll in December 2012, Ebert found himself back in the hospital with a mysterious hip fracture that weeks later would be attributed to a recurrence of the cancer, this time on his spine. His doctors gave him six to 16 months, but it turned out he only had five. And James’ camera is there almost every step of the way. It’s harrowing, but thankfully James chops it up by taking us on a nostalgic trip down the rabbit hole of Ebert’s wild and crazy life, a journey that includes battles with loneliness, alcoholism and, of course, Gene Siskel, his one great love and biggest enemy.

Their cantankerous relationship is the centerpiece of the film, and it’s fascinating to behold, especially the snarky outtakes from the various incarnations of their wildly popular TV show. Yes, they really hated each other. But as Siskel’s widow, Marlene Iglitzen, recalls her husband fondly saying, “Roger is an a–hole, but he’s my a–hole.” James traces much of that ambivalence to their varied backgrounds. The tall, skinny Yale-educated Jew and the short, fat, less-educated Catholic. But Ebert always felt he had the upper hand because he had a Pulitzer and Siskel didn’t. We also learn through Marlene that her late husband always lived in fear that Ebert would one day break out on his own and leave him in the dust. But those anxieties were calmed considerably when Ebert, at age 50, met and married his beloved Chaz. Now, Siskel thought, Ebert would need to keep his job to support his new family.

And what a family it was. But there were obstacles, mainly because Ebert was white and his bride, her children and grandchildren were all black. But as one of the offspring says, Roger was like an honorary brother. It was a role he served well, even in his college days, when as editor of the University of Illinois-Urbana student newspaper, Ebert championed the fledgling civil rights movement. A call for equality that years later would often be reflected in his reviews, especially “Hoop Dreams,” the story of two black Chicago teenagers hoping basketball would be their ticket out of the ghetto.

James says he owes much to Ebert for that movie’s success, but before filming began on “Life Itself” (the title a reference to Ebert’s memoir of the same name), he never really knew his most vocal champion. But in those final five months, James grew very close, as do we, albeit vicariously through his funny, deeply moving film. And while Ebert no doubt helped many an actor, director and writer win an Academy Award, there was never an Oscar for Roger Ebert. With “Life Itself,” I have feeling that slight is about to change. It’s just too bad he won’t be around to see it. But wherever his spirit resides, you can be sure he’ll be giving James, and this film, a big thumbs up.

LIFE ITSELF (R for brief sexual images/nudity, and language.) A documentary by Steve James featuring Roger and Chaz Ebert. Grade: A