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How a person feels about Dr. Jack Kevorkian dovetails neatly with personal opinions over end-of-life choices: Either he’s a monster or ahead of his time.
Kevorkian always has been clear that he’s on a mission to let individuals decide when they’re ready to check out. In “You Don’t Know Jack,” HBO’s new film about the doctor’s successes (and one big failure) in making suicide an option for the terminally ill, the position of filmmaker Barry Levinson also is clear: the man is extremely eccentric, but he’s on to something.
Humanizing Kevorkian requires a bit of costume drama, but Al Pacino (Kevorkian) and Susan Sarandon (the head of the local Hemlock Society, later one of his patients) are up to the task along with some clever hair work and oversized glasses. Backed up by John Goodman (who calls Kevorkian “America’s quack”) and Brenda Vaccaro, what emerges are spot-on, heartfelt performances flayed of any sentiment.
Levinson’s tale covers the 130 patients Kevorkian helped to their demise and the legal battles he fought and won thanks to rabble-rousing lawyer Geoffrey Feiger (Danny Huston with a terrible, if accurate, hairdo).
The doc has his own sense of drama, refusing to eat while incarcerated, then storming out of court decrying “this fusion of religious dogma and medicine.” Pacino disappears into the hunch and Michigan accent and fashions an introverted man who is nonetheless propelled by his passion; watching him move forward without regret or fear is astonishing.
But the film skims over the bigger questions — for example, who gets to decide when someone deserves their own self-determination? At one point, two patients are told they’re simply not close enough to death to qualify, and the script never explores what Kevorkian thinks about the practical considerations of self-euthanasia. Admittedly, it’s not a subject one film could resolve, but it is one that asks for more understanding.
That’s the central flaw of “Jack” — a lack of interior understanding. Emerging from the more than two-hour film, one knows more historical details about what happened but never do seem to get to know Jack. Instead, we’re like Sarandon’s Janet Good, begging from our deathbeds for Jack to tell us something about himself and arriving at the end of things without any greater understanding than we had at the start.
Airdate: 9-11:10 p.m. Saturday, April 24 (HBO)
Production: An HBO Films presentation of Bee Holder, Cine Mosaic, Levinson/Fontana production
Cast: Al Pacino, Brenda Vaccaro, John Goodman, Deidre O’Connell, Todd Susman, Adam Lubarsky
Executive producers: Barry Levinson, Tom Fontana, Steve Lee Jones, Glenn Rigberg, Lydia Dean Pilcher
Writer: Adam Mazer
Producer: Scott Ferguson
Director: Barry Levinson
Director of photography: Eigil Bryld
Production designer: Mark Ricker
Costume designer: Rita Ryack
Casting: Ellen Chenoweth
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