A long time coming, the definitive bio-pic of Jack Kevorkian, the controversial physician who made headlines in the late ’90s by performing physician-assisted suicides, is here. You Don’t Know Jack covers the main events from Kevorkian’s tenure as “Dr. Death”: His first assisted suicide, his meeting Geoffrey Fieger, the subsequent trials culminating in Kevorkian’s trial for the death of ALS patient Thomas Youk (in which the doctor, with great difficulty, represented himself), and ends with his incarceration.
These scenes and others are obligatory, but the film is less concerned with presenting an argument for assisted suicide or depicting history as it is with understanding Kevorkian the man.
As the doctor, Al Pacino holds the film together with one of his more subtle performances in recent memory. Likewise, it’s been a while since Pacino so immersed himself in a role that you forget you’re watching the actor. He plays Kevorkian as a man so convinced of his own view that he often falls into the same sort of dogmatic stubbornness he attacks.
When he shows up to a courthouse dressed in colonial garb and encased in a prop stock, one can’t help but think of the scene from The People Versus Larry Flynt when Woody Harrelson similarly goes to trial wearing the American flag as a diaper, both men putting aside the furthering of their cause for petty grudges. But Kevorkian at heart is not first and foremost a showman.
Why shouldn’t we have the choice to end our suffering? And why must those who would deprive us of that choice hide behind legal technicalities? When put on the spot Kevorkian argues his opinion with reason, passion, and truthfulness to a fault. When asked why he performs assisted suicides, his response is simply that he only hopes someone else will do the same for him, selfish as it is. Pacino’s delivery is earnest and blunt, but adds a touch of egotism that suggests a critical narrow-mindedness—even if the doctor is right, his unwillingness to listen to others has alienated many would-be followers.
The other key performance is Danny Huston as Kevorkian’s flamboyant attorney Geoffrey Fieger. As someone growing up in mid-Michigan during the late ‘90s and remembering all this, particularly Fieger’s mud-slinging campaign for governor, I can say it’s an uncanny likeness.
Pacino’s yooper (that’s Upper Peninsula for non-Michiganders) accent is a little off and at times distracting, but Huston is Fieger: the haircut, the cocksure attitude, the love of each press camera’s click… and when he casually accuses then-governor John Engler of racism and a slew of other offenses, Huston is actually pretty restrained—the real Fieger sneered a whole lot more. (One campaign ad that sticks out in my mind had Fieger in front of a chalkboard chastising Engler for not accepting a debate. At the end, Fieger looked into the camera and asked Engler where he was…and the camera panned out to reveal a chicken perched on a stool, clucking.)
The two other big-name stars are John Goodman as Kevorkian’s friend Neal Nicol, and Susan Sarandon as Hemlock Society activist Janet Good. The two do well as expected, but their characters never seem particularly important or integral to the plot. If this were not a bio-pic and they not real people, it’d be hard to understand why they’re there.
Brenda Vaccaro as Kevorkian’s older sister Margo, however, is key. The movie is clearly on Kevorkian’s side and, almost to a fault, rarely pits him in earnest debate against his opposition. But Margo, who thanklessly sticks by and supports her brother when he all but ignores her, reveals a flawed, human side to Kevorkian and keeps the film grounded in reality when it threatens to become fawning.
Jack is not a short film, coming at just over two hours, and presents as close of a portrayal of Jack Kevorkian as we are likely to get, but it may have been better served to focus on two or three key events—the first assisted suicide, murder trial, and what-have-you—than try to cover the whole story. At times the focus feels scattered, shifting back and forth between Kevorkian’s professional crusade, then personal life, and then going off to explore the lives of the supporting characters.
Likewise, by the time we get to suicide 111, there’s a sense that we’ve seen this before. The cinematography is often monotonous as well. Director Barry Levinson shoots in a lot of sterile blues and grays (which, granted, is the perfect choice for Detroit in the ‘90s), but it takes a weary toll, and when it switches to crude home video for Kevorkian’s interviews with each patient, there’s little relief.
Still, whether they agree or disagree with Kevorkian, the viewer will come away with a better understanding of the man and his beliefs, and for that, given its rather flippant title (in an oddly humorless film) it certainly achieves what it sets out to do. Dr. Death may be a flawed man, yes, but he’s a valiant fighter.