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Roger Ebert: The Shrill Shill By: Chris Reed
FrontPageMagazine.com | Friday, August 01, 2003

The August issue of The Progressive is out, and, surprise, surprise: It features a TV star unloading on George W. Bush, craven Republicans and the evils of American capitalism in a way that makes Howard Dean seem downright restrained.

Ranting about how Bush stole the presidential election, is simultaneously a religious zealot and disrespectful to the Pope, and is both devious and a moron, the TV star can’t understand why the rest of America doesn’t agree with him.

“I think a lot of working-class people don’t understand their money is being stolen…[W]e’ve had a concerted policy of taking money away from the poor and giving it to the rich wholesale, and at the same time, we have the runaway corporations and the greed. I feel ordinary people really should be angry.”

Martin Sheen? Michael Moriarty? Janeane Garofalo?

Nope. It’s Roger Ebert, perhaps the best-known critic in the world, thanks to his durable weekly TV show and its thumbs-up, thumbs-down gimmick.

But Ebert has other personas besides the one he’s cultivated on television for nearly 30 years. There’s the Roger Ebert whose lucid, middlebrow reviews for the Chicago Sun-Times have made him arguably America’s most influential print film journalist. There’s the Ebert who once moonlighted as a writer for exploitation-film specialist Russ Meyers, getting the script credit on “Beyond the Valley of the Dolls.”

And now, at age 60, there’s the James Carville-style demonizer who thinks the right is always wrong, and inevitably has appalling motives to boot.

This Ebert came to the fore in the fall of 2000, with his over-the-top raves for “The Contender,” writer-director Rod Lurie’s story about a female senator (played by Joan Allen) nominated to replace a dead vice president who nobly refuses to address Republican-spread rumors that she was involved in college orgies. Lurie’s labored attempt to equate the treatment of his heroine under fire with the treatement received by Bill Clinton after he was caught using the Oval Office to receive oral sex from a doltish intern was widely panned – except by Ebert. In his print review, after hamhanded shots at Republicans and Kenneth Star, Ebert called “The Contender” a four-star classic.

It’s been all downhill since. The lowlights:

-- His vicious depiction (in a July 2001, Sun-Times general-news column) of presidential daughter Barbara Bush as an ignorant “yob” on the loose in London. Given her idiot father, Ebert reasoned, what could one expect?

-- His relentless championing of “Bowling for Columbine,” Michael Moore’s latest agitprop masquerading as a documentary.

-- His tirade about George W. Bush’s alleged vicious insensitivity toward  those on Texas’ Death Row in his print review this spring of “The Life of David Gale,” a melodrama about an anti-death-penalty crusader.

-- His likening of the Bill the Butcher character in “Gangs of New York” – a cleaver-waving, mass-murdering thug – to Katherine Harris. Ebert’s point, made on “Ebert & Roeper”: Both Bill the Butcher and Harris used whatever means possible to take and keep power. Even the Democratic National Committee comes up with more sophisticated insults disguised as insights.

It’s worth comparing Ebert’s reflexive right-bashing with the approach of Pauline Kael, the legendary New Yorker writer who was considered the nation’s most influential film critic in her heyday. The contrast does not flatter her successor.

Kael was a Manhattan liberal. She liked the protest movies of left-wing European filmmakers like Costa-Gavras and famously decried “Dirty Harry” as a “fascist” entertainment.

But Kael also had little patience for stridency from the left. She denounced Oliver Stone’s films as bombastic and didactic. And Kael, remember, was the journalist who more than any other helped expose Michael Moore for the propagandist he remains. Her New Yorker piece on the “gonzo demagoguery” of Moore’s maiden “documentary” – 1989’s “Roger & Me” – helped killed its chances at an Oscar.

Ebert, or at least his latest incarnation, is incapable of writing such a piece – or any piece whose politics wouldn’t be at home in Mother Jones. When it comes to American politics, you see, it’s the yobs vs. the smart guys. And if the smart guys smear or slander the yobs, well, so what? The yobs have it coming. Through his boorish, knee-jerk leftism, Ebert has become merely another Hollywood elitist thumbing his nose at America. Two thumbs down.

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