By Jeff Jensen
Updated January 05, 2015 at 10:46 PM EST
Matt Sayles/AP

Life Itself (documentary)

  • Movie

Television remembered the passing and legacies of two trailblazing media figures on Sunday. ESPN began the day informing its viewers that Stuart Scott, one of the most distinctive voices in sports broadcasting, had died from cancer at the age of 49. Scott anchored SportsCenter with the intensity and flair of a natural born emcee trying to win a showcase, narrating highlight packages with an up-tempo flow of inspired metaphors, dense, rhythmic, unpredictable sentences, and calculated punctuations like “Boo-ya!” that became catchphrases. He was brainy but not pretentious, sincere but no fool, and as Daniel Fienberg notes, he deviated sharply from the irony and detachment of Dan Patrick and Craig Kilborn, reversing (or at least slowing) SportsCenter’s slow descent into dull smug. The fact that he had “style”—that he put all of himself into the anchorman’s job while doing the job with max professionalism—was remarkable to me, and that ESPN allowed him to cultivate it, extraordinary. His passion for the sports he was covering was palpable, but he managed his fandom with great discipline. He embodied the “This is SportsCenter” mythologizing of ESPN as much as anyone there, the idea that being an ESPN sportscaster might just be the coolest, funnest thing in the world, even if it meant residing in Bristol, Conn.

Some found him forced, his on-air personality contrived. That criticism feels fair to me, though to be honest, I forget the Stuart Scott who tried too hard at being “Stuart Scott.” I only remember an image that gained in gravitas and vulnerability during his cancer battle. My perception of him crystallized last summer when he accepted The Jimmy V Award for Perseverance during the ESPY Awards. Acknowledging the inevitability of his death. Asking his daughter to the stage to give him a hug, because in that moment, he needed one. Sharing this incredible perspective with us: “When you die, that does not mean that you lose to cancer. You beat cancer by how you live, why you live, and in the manner in which you live.” In that raw moment, Scott became real; or rather, I gained eyes to see the authentic person he always was.

On Sunday night, CNN showed us what Scott’s wisdom looks like when lived by airing Life Itself, director Steve James’ acclaimed documentary about the late film critic Roger Ebert. Like Scott, Ebert died from cancer. The disease took away his ability to speak and more before it took his life, but it didn’t take away his voice during his final years, thanks to his prodigious, eloquent blogging about everything—his life, his wife, his partnership with Gene Siskel, his demons, his thoughts on God and science, and of course, the movies. Life Itself captures this man and evangelizes his meaning. ”For me, the movies are like a machine that generates empathy,” Ebert says in the documentary. ”It lets you understand a little bit more about different hopes, aspirations, dreams, and fears. It helps us identify with the people who are sharing this journey with us.” As our own film critic Chris Nashawaty wrote in his review of James’ film: “That’s a beautiful summation not only of the power of movies but also of a life lived through them.”

Our culture doesn’t always do stories about dealing with death well, be it our fiction or our non-fiction. They are often too quick to move us out of the pain and into the “moving on.” In late 2013, Showtime gave us a rare exception with the docu-series Time of Death, one of the most beautifully agonizing and totally necessary things I’ve ever seen on television. Or anywhere. (My review, here.) Life Itself doesn’t flinch from depicting what cancer did to Ebert, how it destroyed his face, diminished his physical expression, robbed him of joys. I appreciated this direct confrontation with the rigors of dying, in the same way I appreciated ESPN for giving us a live model of what it looks like to literally sit in sorrow. Hannah Storm had the job of looking into the camera and telling us that Stuart had passed many times over that morning. Her effort to keep her composure was uncomfortable to behold and shattering. You wondered if she’d do anything to escape the responsibility and the camera, if she might stand and bolt. She didn’t. Chris Berman and his desk-mates on Sunday Morning Countdown went around the horn, reflecting on Scott and expressing their grief. Over on the NFL Network, Scott’s former SportsCenter co-anchor and on-air “wife,” Rich Eisen, took to the air just 10 minutes after being told the news, and his messy grapple with his emotions, his angry protest against the very idea of thinking and speaking of his friend in the past tense, was poignant. Not every television news operation can or perhaps should respond this way to the death of one of their own. ESPN and the NFL have that freedom, and I’m glad they exercised it.

Life Itself and “Remembering Stuart Scott” (as ESPN branded its tribute programming) punctuate a recent stretch of stories about people living with and dying from cancer. There are three others that immediately come to my mind, all very different, each in their own way inspiring. Robin Roberts, the Good Morning America anchor and former ESPN sportscaster, moved many with her openness about her battle with cancer and how it has changed her approach to living since being diagnosed. Last fall, we heard about Brittany Maynard, the 29-year-old Oregon woman suffering from terminal brain cancer who chose to take her own life to spare her family the agony of attending to her deterioration and to complete the authorship of her story by going out on her terms. One day after her suicide, we got the story of Lauren Hill, a student-athlete at Mount St. Joseph in Cincinnati, who fulfilled a dream of playing college basketball despite physical limitations due to brain cancer.

I was affected by these stories this past year for very personal reasons. As I’ve shared before, my wife, Amy, died last summer from brain cancer. I can tell you that she appreciated how and what Roberts shared. Amy, who found it hard to find the language to describe her own cancer ordeal, could point to aspects of her story and say, “It’s like that.” Cancer often left Amy feeling alone and isolated, even though she was surrounded by people who loved her and doted on her. Yet while we could walk with her, we couldn’t walk for her. Public examples like Roberts helped her feel less alienated from others, helped her feel known.

I encountered the Maynard and Hill stores on the same night in November, on the same newscast, four months after Amy’s death. They ripped me apart, pressing on parts of my experience I had not dealt with, but needed to; specifically, the horror of Amy’s decline, the slow dismantling and then too-fast obliteration of her personality. Some of Hill’s ailments were very reminiscent of Amy’s ailments. The echoes disturbed me and exposed me. Maynard wanted to spare her family? I can only empathize. I know her choice was unacceptable to some, but you know, the whole damn business just isn’t fair, to anyone. Don’t judge her story. Just let it break your heart.

This coming year, more stories will be told about living with terminal illness, be it cancer or something else, showcasing various ways in which people contend with mortality. I hope those in the culture who tell these stories will remember how Stuart Scott defined “beating” cancer. Showing examples of people meeting the challenge of living a meaningful life in the face of death in real, practical ways is important, because so many other people in that same position—be it those who are dying or those who are supporting them—sometimes lack the imagination for how to do that. Simple or even eloquent exhortations to “Live! Live! Live!” can be defeating, because the project, when described with such general or grand language, seems so huge to tackle for someone with so little energy and low spirits. It never worked on Amy. Believe me, I tried. I’d give her pep talks, she’d tell me to “F— off” and retreat to her room. But give her specific, executable ideas, and she could rally.

That said, and for those same reasons, I would encourage those telling stories about people with cancer to be mindful of those out there who might be crushed by the very carpe diem inspiration you’re trying to give them. Not everyone with cancer is Stuart Scott, not everyone can be Roger Ebert. Many of them are like Amy, overwhelmed by the perceived or felt enormity of the labor, who lose the battle as often as they win. To those of you out there who might be fighting that fight, and feeling that challenge, I want you to know you that you are known, and I am so, so sorry. It’s not fair. The whole damn thing just isn’t fair.

Life Itself (documentary)

  • Movie
  • R
  • 118 minutes
  • Steve James