One of the most important things about Ebert's writing, by my lights, is that his film criticism was always deeply and unapologetically personal. He had strongly-held opinions about what he liked and what he didn't, and he had good reasons for them (something the film clearly shows in B-roll from At the Movies). But when you read his writing—which you can do at his website, where his archives live on—you can see, especially as he matured as a writer, how much his personal life, background, beliefs, emotions, fears, and passions drove what he wrote about and why he wrote about it.
This is important for any critic and, indeed, any good watcher to know: who you are affects what you write. The experiences you have shape how you watch. There's little about art that is black and white; your emotional experience matters when you write about a work.
That's the fun part of criticism, though. We have a regular ragtag band of critics here at Christianity Today. But though we work together, I find that our tastes rarely intersect. I have often watched a movie recommended by a friend and found it dull or lacking—and it goes both ways. I can passionately defend my opinion, but that's just it: it's my opinion. And that's the fun of it.
Only bad art allows for a single interpretation (that's what we call propaganda, actually). Good art opens space for us to have a multitude of experiences, depending on what the viewer brings to the table. Good art isn't complete until the viewer completes it.
In his work, Ebert helped us see movies that way: vibrant, vital parts of our communal experience, made fuller by each of us who watches it and then discusses it with others. Movies help us think about who we are and how we live together. And as a movie, Life Itself is a heartfelt, clear-eyed tribute to a master.
The film is rated R; there's some nudity in some of the clips, though nothing excessive, and there's some suggestive talk. Profanities include f-bombs, especially when Siskel and Ebert get going at each other's throats. Also, Ebert's cancer meant he lost his lower jaw, which means the lower half of his face hung loose. The film treats this frankly and there's plenty of footage, but it's possible that a few sensitive viewers such as children may find this difficult to watch. (I'd challenge adults who are interested in the film to watch anyhow, though, if at all possible.)
Alissa Wilkinson is Christianity Today's chief film critic and asssistant professor of English and humanities at The King's College in New York City. She tweets @alissamarie.