Dr. Jack Kevorkian: hero or criminal? “Dr. Death” died at 83 today of kidney and heart complications, renewing interest in the award-winning HBO biopic You Don’t Know Jack, now available locally from on demand providers and on DVD.
Al Pacino stars as the Michigan pathologist, a bespectacled eccentric who provides physician-assisted suicide to the terminally ill. Kevorkian is revealed as a complex, awkward man with a small circle of loyal friends and relatives. Pacino won both a Golden Globe and an Emmy for his performance.
Kevorkian’s ambition to make his mark on medicine drove him. He had no time for socializing and casual conversation. He insisted on helping others in his own way. The doctor is shown assembling a ghoulish “mercitron” device from scrounged parts that would allow patients to initiate their own deaths.
Grim and direct, You Don’t Know Jack delves into the fearful minutes before death again and again. Survivors are overcome with grief. Overall, Kevorkian helps 130 patients with cancer, multiple sclerosis and Lou Gehrig’s Disease to take their own lives. In one of the most dramatic moments of the film, family members change their minds in the midst of a suicide procedure. Kevorkian frantically detaches the contraption from the dying woman.
Helmed by accomplished Barry Levinson (Diner; Rain Man), You Don’t Know Jack takes no side in the controversial debate over physician-assisted suicide. Instead Pacino shows us zeal and stubbornness. Kevorkian’s warmth is for ideas. His compassion for others is matter-of-fact. His arguments are serious, convincing and abrupt.
Adding a documentary-like quality, Levinson includes archival footage from Kevorkian’s controversial 1998 appearance on 60 Minutes, where he administered a lethal injection to Thomas Youk. “Somebody has to do something for suffering humanity,” he said. “I put myself in my patients’ place. This is something I would want.”
Kevorkian was convicted in 1999 of second-degree murder. He was released for good behavior in 2007 after serving part of a 10-to-25 year sentence. In the film Kevorkian justifies his crusade, saying “when the law is deemed immoral, you must disobey it, you must disobey it.”
The prestigious cast brings color to dour, determined Kevorkian. Susan Sarandon (Dead Man Walking) plays Janet Good, the head of the local Hemlock Society who becomes the doctor’s follower. Sarandon is known for her social and political activism.
Kevorkian enlists the help of his friend, scientific supplier Neal Nicol (John Goodman). Danny Huston plays the doctor’s outspoken attorney Geoffrey Fieger. Brenda Vaccaro adds fire as Kevorkian’s sister Margo Janus.
When Janet develops terminal cancer, Kevorkian does not bring up the topic of death until she does. For the first time since losing his mother he feels a terrible personal loss. As Janet begs him to open up, Kevorkian shows a few moments of vulnerability.
You Don’t Know Jack is an unforgettable portrait of a stubborn pioneer. Physician-assisted suicide is now permitted in Washington, Oregon and Montana.
If you like You Don’t Know Jack, you might enjoy: Movies About Letting Go.
You Don’t Know Jack 2010 / R / 1 hour, 39 min
Cast Overview: Al Pacino, Susan Sarandon, Danny Huston, Brenda Vacarro, John Goodman
Director: Barry Levinson
Genre: Documentary, Drama, Biopic