You think you know Jack Kevorkian.
Dr. Death. The dark, deeply set eyes and distinct facial features and physical posture.
You maybe know, in broad strokes, about his court cases, about his time in prison. You probably have a sense of his stubbornness, of his defiance.
If you have any advanced knowledge, perhaps you’ve seen his paintings, his creepy, evocative art.
Yup. You think you know Jack Kevorkian, or at least as much as you care to know about him.
Along comes HBO’s new Jack Kevorkian telefilm with a title, “You Don’t Know Jack,” which makes a bold statement in implying a fresh perspective on the Father of Physician Assisted Suicide.
Does “You Don’t Know Jack” deliver on its promise? The answer is a qualified, “Yes.”
Anchored by a loony-yet-committed performance by Al Pacino, “You Don’t Know Jack” delivers a nuanced and pragmatic portrait of Kevorkian, simultaneously deifying his ideology, while acknowledging his all-too-human foibles.
If “You Don’t Know Jack” succeeds as a character study, though, it often stumbles as a piece of drama, suffering from bland supporting characters and poor narrative focus.
Full review of “You Don’t Know Jack” after the break…
“You Don’t Know Jack” picks up in 1989 as Kevorkian (Pacino) performed his first assisted suicide. It follows his series of legal escapes, assisted by grandstanding attorney Geoffrey Fieger (Danny Huston), and his refusal to sacrifice his ethical principles to the established law of the land. For a while, there’s a patient-by-patient clumsiness to the storytelling and the end, leading to Kevorkian’s well-know incarceration, becomes rushed and under-explored. With biopics, focus is essential. I think that probably writer Adam Mazer chose the right place within Kevorkian’s life to focus, but the focus within the focus isn’t exactly right. There’s a “cover all the bases” choice that comes at the expense of depth.
Mazer and director Barry Levinson present the story in a way that leaves little doubt that when it comes to Kevorkian’s beliefs that people should be able to choose a dignified and merciful death. The film’s strongest moments are reenactments and actual documentary footage of Kevorkian’s taped interviews with potential patients. In those scenes, Kevorkian comes across more as a concerned Angel of Mercy than a Doctor of Death. Levinson handles that footage, especially the manipulated scenes in which Pacino had to be Gumped into existing video, with a tremendous amount of restraint. He lets the interviews play out, even at the expense of dramatic momentum. Even if the movie begins to feel sluggish at times, I prefer that fault to any approach that would have made those interviews feel even slightly exploitative.
Kevorkian’s feelings are repeatedly articulated and expanded upon, taking his arguments well beyond the soundbytes familiar from interviews of the time. Mazer and Levinson stack the deck by barely dedicating any reasonable consideration to the opposition side, turning Kevorkian’s legal and moral adversaries into one-dimensional background players, little more than glorified extras.
The good doctor’s greatest adversary was himself. Mazer and Levinson take pains to emphasize his grandstanding and his stubborness, leaving little doubt that had Kevorkian taken a less confrontational path, he could have continued to go about his business with minimal intervention and maybe, eventually, advocated for changes in the law.
It shouldn’t be a surprise that Pacino, only occasionally accused of being one of our more subtle actors, aces Kevorkian’s grandstanding. Pacino finds many of Kevorkian’s quirks and tics. He finds the antisocial rascal in Kevorkian and it’s that side of the made that justifies the “You Don’t Know Jack” title. HBO owns the telefilm Emmy category and given Pacino’s stature, it’s almost inconceivable that he won’t be winning an Emmy for what can most kindly be described as a broad performance. Everything we know about Jack, from his voice to his physical mannerisms, is exaggerated here. You can go back and find TV interviews with Kevorkian from this period and you’ll hear that Pacino has taken the man’s Michigan accent and magnified it by a factor of 10. That choice will draw some accusations of hamminess and some laughter, but when it comes to accent work, all I require is making a full commitment. Nobody will leave “You Don’t Know Jack” doubting Pacino’s commitment to the role.
Also, Pacino gets a bit of a break on charges of over-acting because he probably knew how thin his supporting cast was. Emmy winner Brenda Vaccaro and Oscar winner Susan Sarandon have half-parts at best. It’s especially hard to guess why, other than political reasons, Sarandon would have felt this was a part that rewarded her in any way. Sarandon is still likely to get an Emmy nod for the movie, but that’s on reputation more than contributions. Among the male co-stars, Huston is upstaged by a hilarious wig and John Goodman holds his own, but never feels completely integrated into either the story or Kevorkian’s life. One could almost make an argument that writing “You Don’t Know Jack” as practically a one-man show would have been better than wasting so much talent on so many underwritten roles.
“You Don’t Know Jack” gets a lot of mileage from a John Proctor monologue from Arthur Miller’s “The Crucible.” In the monologue, recited by Kevorkian and later repeated in pieces, John Proctor declares, “How may I live without my name? I have given you my soul; leave me my name!” HBO’s new biopic is a reclamation of sorts for Jack Kevorkian’s name and even if it isn’t a total triumph for all of this two-plus hours, it definitely will change the public image of Dr. Death, thus achieving its main goal.
“You Don’t Know Jack” premieres on Saturday, April 24 at 9 p.m. on HBO.