Review of HBO Films’ “You Don’t Know Jack”

The premiere of HBO Films’ You Don’t Know Jack” aired this evening to much press and media hype. Directed by Oscar-winning director Barry Levinson (“Rain Man”), the film stars Al Pacino as the infamous Dr. Jack Kevorkian – and it follows us from his days at being an unemployed physician in the early 1990’s, through the over 130+ assisted suicides that he aided in, and finally, the well-known trial that brought an end to his morally questionable practice.

Not only is “You Don’t Know Jack” an important piece of filmmaking (thank you HBO), but brings to the forefront such fascinating moral and ethical dilemmas about a person’s right to die that have always followed in the shadows of Dr. Kevorkian. Perhaps this is an odd choice of wording here, but the film is also a pleasure to watch – as it draws the viewer into this beguiling debate with each passing scene.

With the passing of Marlon Brando in 2005, and then Paul Newman three years later, Al Pacino may very well be the finest screen actor alive (although if you told me Daniel Day-Lewis, I wouldn’t put up much of a fight). Pacino shines here as he immerses himself into the man that is Jack Kevorkian – the slouched-over way that he walks, his voice, his eyes as he watches his patients slowly fall into a sleep that they will never awake from…as a biopic, much of the film rests on Pacino’s mighty shoulders, and he carries it in such graceful fashion all the way. Here, Pacino plays the Kevorkian that most of America has seen in the news and on interviews, but more impressively, he plays the Kevorkian that we never knew – his close relationship with his sister Margo (a wonderfully strong and funny Brenda Vaccaro), his ascetic lifestyle, his maddening stubbornness, and his supreme dedication to serve his patients and fight for the one thing he truly believes in…even if it killed him. This is thanks in part to Adam Mazer’s careful screenplay and his characterization of the man, to Levinson’s subtle direction, and of course to Pacino, who looks so effortless doing it all. The use of grey and pale blue color throughout the film, the precise use of close-ups and simple art direction all work very well.

The supporting cast is led by Danny Huston who plays Geoffrey Fieger, Kevorkian’s arrogant and successful attorney. The intimate scenes between the two are great entertainment. Susan Sarandon and John Goodman play colleagues who believe in what Kevorkian stands for and are there to assist him throughout his journey. Goodman has a great look to him and his sympathetic face works wonders on the viewer. In one particular scene (where he is helping Kevorkian with a suicide in which they may not have enough supplies), he is placing a plastic box around the patient’s head – the looks he gives to Kevorkian say it all and it is very moving to sit through.

There are some great moments in the film – when Kevorkian famously came to court dressed in a powdered wig complete with ball in chain, a confrontational scene between brother and sister in a local Bob’s Big Boy, a moment when Kevorkian finally lets himself open up to Janet Good (Sarandon) and tells a small bit from his past…it all works to add another piece to the Kevorkian puzzle. I was especially moved by the scenes with Kevorkian and his patients, as the videotape was recording their conversations. Levinson shoots these scenes as if they were homemade videos and it is quite effective. I don’t believe the movie works to manipulate your feelings about its subject one way or another. I don’t think viewers will watch this film and change their opinions on such a vital subject, though I do believe it is important for them to watch.

In the end, if you defy the rules long enough and go against the norm, you’ll end up getting the horns, which is what happens when Kevorkian submits his videotape of what was to be his last assisted suicide to CBS’ “60 Minutes” all but putting himself behind bars. This is what he always wanted – a chance to put the issue of euthanasia on trial and Kevorkian naturally defends himself. With no legal training whatsoever, Kevorkian’s case gets weaker and weaker. Geoffrey Fieger barks in the hallway, “It’s like watching a man hang himself!” The line is quite fitting as earlier in the film Kevorkian, at the dinner table, tenderly recites a line by Arthur Miller’s protagonist John Proctor in the brilliant play “The Crucible”:

“Because it is my name! Because I cannot have another in my life! Because I lie and sign myself to lies! Because I am not worth the dust on the feet of them that hang! How may I live without my name? I have given you my soul; leave me my name!”

It is a line that Kevorkian will incessantly (and deliriously) repeat when he is in jail and on his 19-day hunger strike. In the play, Proctor can go back home to live his life with his faithful wife and kids – if only he lies to the judge and says he has witnessed others in Salem trafficking with the devil. Proctor cannot do it…and he is hanged for it. He is, in many ways, a martyr – a man who is willing to die for what he believes in – Dr. Kevorkian is his descendent here and the comparison works nicely. I highly encourage you to see this film — a strong, weighty work by Mr. Levinson, his cast, and crew.

Rating:
Year: 2010
Director: Barry Levinson

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6 Responses to Review of HBO Films’ “You Don’t Know Jack”

  1. Neil Berger says:

    Heh I’m literally the first comment to your awesome writing?!?

  2. Dana Bright says:

    If only more than 68 people would hear about this..

  3. Pat says:

    I think you were right on with this film. It may be hard to watch but worth it.

  4. Hey, I found your blog in a new directory of blogs. I dont know how your blog came up, must have been a typo, anyway cool blog, I bookmarked you. 🙂

  5. Annette says:

    I had seen the promo for this HBO film and kept it on my radar all week, having been stunned by just how well Al Pacino seemed to become Jack Kevorkian. This is one of the few films I’ve seen where I was not distracted by an actor trying to become his or her subject. The only other one that comes to mind is Charleze Theron as Eileen Wuornos in “Monster”.

    I have always believed in the right to end one’s suffering. We do it for our cherished animals, making the choice for them that we can only hope they would choose for themselves if they could, yet are forbidden to help those who can voice their pain and beg for an end to their suffering. If nothing else, I hope this film has once again opened the debate.

    Great review, Peter, and a great film.

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