Obsessing Over Esquire’s Brilliant Roger Ebert Profile

Every once in awhile a piece of journalism just grabs hold of you, sinks its teeth in and takes over your soul. And I mean that in the best way possible.

I read Chris Jones’s Esquire magazine profile of Roger Ebert last week, and I still can’t shake it. It was moving, fascinating, funny and heartbreaking. One of those stories that’s impossible to get over.

Four years ago Ebert lost his lower jaw, along with his ability to speak, eat and drink, to cancer. Jones’s profile reveals Ebert’s ongoing recovery battles and thoughts on death and reminds us that Ebert is one hell of a writer.

A few highlights:

Stunning photography. Ok, this is not the work of the author, but Ethan Hill’s close-up portrait of Ebert’s cancer-ravaged face sets the tone for the entire story and tells us immediately that this Roger Ebert is a vastly changed man—at least physically.

An intimate and powerful sense of place. Jones places Ebert in his home, a critics’ screening room, his writing posture, a hospital bed, a neighborhood park, dinner out with his wife and an exhausting work party in downtown Chicago. Jones actually witnessed some of those scenes; the others he is just recreating. But each is filled with electric details and tells an important part of Ebert’s story. It’s also a testament to Jones’s talent as a reporter, not just a writer.

Poetic but grounded language. Jones’s writing is exquisite and artful, but he chooses words that serve the story, not to show off.

A worthy subject. No amount of reporting and wordsmithing can overcome a weak subject. This article is so powerful because Roger warrants our attention. He is an intriguing, talented, thoughtful figure who has experienced enormous tragedy. Jones had the insight to recognize a thoroughly compelling person and the talent to do his story justice.

For another master class on writing, read Ebert’s reaction to the story.

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I write what I know (and love). Mostly higher education, writing and public relations.