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October 4, 2015

Pacino Kills as Dr. Kevorkian in 'You Don't Know Jack'

by Danny Gallagher, posted Apr 26th 2010 11:33AM
Dr. Jack Kevorkian's headline-grabbing crusade against medical law and procedures was bound to become a movie sooner or later. It's got all the elements that make for great viewing, whether it's on the larger-than-life screen of your local cineplex or the soft, warm glow of your living room television.

Al Pacino as Dr. Jack Kevorkian in the HBO movie
Director Barry Levinson
took "Door No. 2" for his retelling of Dr. Kevorkian's campaign for euthanasia and doctor-assisted suicide called 'You Don't Know Jack,' which premiered last Saturday on HBO. And when Emmy rears its massive head scanning the crowd for suitable nominations for the best actor in a mini-series, you can bet it will point its bony, golden finger Al Pacino's way.

His portrayal of the good doctor fighting the good fight isn't what anyone might expect from the explosive talent that made phrases such as "Hoo-hah" and "I'm just getting warmed up" staples of the movie fanboys' catchphrase-spouting lexicon. It's so good, in fact, that he can hold his own under the shaky foundation of an uneven supporting cast.

The film follows the life of the Michigan doctor as he embarks on his activism by setting up his own private practice that provides terminally ill patients the option of doctor-assisted suicide. It doesn't bother going through his entire life. Instead, it starts and finishes with the meat of Kevorkian's infamy and leaves his biographical breadcrumbs for the viewer to pick up along the way from his macabre artistic endeavors to the suffering his mother endured on her deathbed.

"She told me, 'Imagine the worst toothache in the world,'" Kevorkian tells Janet Good, played by Susan Sarandon. "'Now imagine that toothache in every bone in your body.'"

Multiple viewings are a must to pick up on all of Kevorkian's idiosyncrasies and motives, whether it's a piece of his past or just part of his complex human makeup. It's still a treat to watch each time.

You can thank Pacino for that. His performance as the determined doctor isn't just inspiring. It's creepy good and not the kind of creepy you might imagine. As the title implies, the film aims not just to tell the story behind the headlines but also put a human face on a man who has been heralded as a hero and vilified as a demon in the national spotlight and often in the same sentence.

Pacino brings an alluring humanism to the character. His Midwestern accent and soothing voice convey a deep compassion for those who are suffering that evolves as the film progresses. Even when his character is given an opportunity to morph into the ranting and raving Pacino caricature, he gives Kevorkian a deep, soft layer in his most temperamental moments. Hell, he's the kind of doctor any frail human would want standing over their death bed. Think of him as a Patch Adams that you don't want to strangle into a coma.

The supporting cast is a range of hits and misses. John Goodman, Susan Sarandon and Brenda Vaccaro put in a fine effort as Kevorkian's partners-in-common-law-crime. Goodman and Sarandon's parts don't seem as fleshed out as they could be, but they work well within the tight confines of the script. Vaccaro does an excellent job with Kevorkian's sister Margo. Her character progresses Kevorkian's psyche and motives in some key areas and her performance not only makes them clearer but only makes her more believable as the devoted sibling.

Kevorkian's attorney, played by Danny Huston, feels way too over the top and almost hammy in places. George Fiester, the attorney who takes on Kevorkian's many conviction attempts out of devotion to his cause, is prone to dramatics in and out of the courtroom as he goads the ultra-conservative district attorney in such obvious, almost childlike ways. He has zero room for pathos. Maybe the real Fiester acted the same way. He is, after all, a lawyer. The script, however, doesn't make those personality traits clear except for a bit of bio that Fiester studied drama in college early on in the film, a fact that felt tacked on to explain for the avalanche of ham yet to come.

It's easily overlooked when the film focuses itself back on its main character. Pacino's performance and the script's deep character study bring to light some of the key points of this highly controversial issue and raise important discussions about the right-to-die debate, discussions that still don't feel fully discussed in this age of fuzzy enlightenment.

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George Fiester? You mean Geoffrey Fieger?

April 26 2010 at 3:14 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

From article:
" Hell, he's the kind of doctor any frail human would want standing over their death bed. "

I would not want him in the same state as me or mine.

Slippery slope people. Who is qualified to say what is a good quality of life for another person. A very dangerous man, Kevorkian.

April 26 2010 at 3:06 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
2 replies to bsgfan2003's comment

That was the point. He never made the decision for the person it was a decision they made for themselves and he just gave them the means. It is a decision every person should have for themselves. As someone who watched two very vibrant much loved relatives die a slow and painful death, while they were begging to be let free from the pain, I wish this option was legal every where in the US. When you have been given six months, have a terminal condition, are in agony, what purpose does that suffering serve? Why can we not allow them to go easier? I asked my aunt once when she was keeping my great-grandmother alive on machines why she was doing it. Her answer "SHE" wasn't ready to let go yet. It had nothing to do with my great-grandmothers's quality of life at that moment or any religious beliefs. My aunt wasn't ready and to me that is the height of selfishness. To make some one else continue to suffer because you are not ready to let them go?!

April 26 2010 at 3:32 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
carol loving

my reply to you, sir, is that you do not know what you are talking about. You, sir, are just another puppet speaking the same old rhetoric of all the fear-mongers. Slippery Slope. Oh, please, sir, go out and get some true life and death experience. You still don't know jack!

April 27 2010 at 5:57 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

When I heard that Kevorkian was going to jail all those years ago the only thought I had was I hope he had an apprentice. Too many people equate life with living. If I am in agony, barely able to remember my name and wearing a diaper please someone put me out of my misery!. Would we do no less for a family pet? I watched this on Saturday and thought Pacino was great!! Going to watch again.

April 26 2010 at 1:06 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
1 reply to Gina's comment

There is no comparison between a human life and a life of a pet.

April 26 2010 at 3:09 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

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