'You Don't Know Jack' from HBO previewed by Tom Shales

NO HOLDS BARRED: Pacino metamorphoses again, channeling the doctor's passion about the right to die.
NO HOLDS BARRED: Pacino metamorphoses again, channeling the doctor's passion about the right to die. (Abbot Genser/hbo)
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By Tom Shales
Saturday, April 24, 2010

In the end, or near it, Jack Kevorkian put too much faith in the system. He threw himself at the mercy of the merciless. Maybe "faith" isn't a word one associates with the self-appointed Angel of Death who answered the prayers of the suffering, but an excess of it might have been his undoing -- and the reason he served eight years in prison rather than, as he had hoped, changing American law. In the powerful new HBO movie "You Don't Know Jack: The Life and Deaths of Jack Kevorkian," premiering Saturday night at 9, Al Pacino becomes Kevorkian just as assuredly and seamlessly as he has become so many other characters on movie and television screens -- real people and invented ones. The distinction proves irrelevant because Pacino makes them all real, sometimes by the end of the first scene.

That's the case with "You Don't Know Jack," really a lame title for such a rock-solid and absorbing film. Director Barry Levinson makes sure to include a long close-up of Pacino right away, so that the audience can get over the "Gee, he looks just like Kevorkian" phase. The doctor appears at the door of an elderly woman's hospital room, and we all know he's not there to give her a sponge bath.

Yes, the film is grim; neither Levinson nor writer Adam Mazer can be charged with sugarcoating it. The strain of dark humor that is there seems to reflect Kevorkian's personality instead of coming off as comic relief. The humor rises naturally from the kinds of things we think Kevorkian would really say -- as when he rejects a proffered piece of pie with, "This is full of fat and sugar; you trying to kill me?"

Or when he refuses an invitation to go to New York and be interviewed by Barbara Walters because "flying scares the daylights out of me." He doesn't laugh at death -- he has the deepest respect for it -- but believes there are worse things. And via skillful image manipulation, Pacino as Kevorkian is interviewed by (a young) Walters and by Mike Wallace in a historic "60 Minutes" segment, too.

Kevorkian believes in "a basic human right" to die when a patient is all suffered out, when life itself becomes an intractable ordeal, but there must be organic causes. In one wrenching scene, a young athlete who lost the use of his legs to a disease, and who then attempted suicide by self-immolation, is turned down for assisted suicide by Dr. Kevorkian because the young man has been diagnosed as clinically depressed.

The film is a '90s story. Most of the doctor's cases, medical and legal, took place in that decade. Kevorkian's assisted suicides are in turn assisted by his sister (Brenda Vaccaro, every inch an actress) and a longtime assistant and colleague played by the ever-dependable John Goodman. Vaccaro has been putting on weight -- my heart goes out to her -- and Goodman is no sylph, while bycontrast the doctor is the very image of emaciation, especially after he stages hunger strikes during jail terms.

He believes he is absolutely in the right, and as it has often done over the course of human history, the state insists he is wrong and persecutes him accordingly. A fanatical Michigan prosecutor, arguably more obsessive than Kevorkian is (and far more insufferable, because he's decided he speaks for his close personal friend, God), keeps trying to shut down Kevorkian's traveling executioner act.

Kevorkian interviewed all his patients and potential patients on film or videotape, so as to have proof that they were in no way coerced or seduced into taking this ultimate final step. Several such meetings are woven into "You Don't Know Jack," and a spokesman for HBO confirms that three are from Kevorkian's files and that those seen asking for his help are the actual people. (I honestly didn't want to know which were which and asked HBO not to tell me.)

Mazer's script follows the doctor from his earliest, quietest cases in Michigan through his first blushes of local and then national publicity, including his portrait on the cover of Time. Kevorkian must do battle not only with overzealous politicians but also with fellow doctors who denounce him as a killer quack; with his own lawyer, who eventually decides to run for political office; and with America's ever-ready nut fringe, members of which show up at his home in states of pietistic imbecility. One protester arrives in a wheelchair with a hand-lettered sign around his neck that says "Please Don't Kill Me."

Kevorkian thinks the logic and compassion in his mission will help him win out in the end; this naivete encourages him to be his own lawyer when Michigan brings him up on charges of assisted suicide and second-degree murder. Kevorkian the would-be lawyer does indeed have a fool for a client, but he also faces an unsympathetic judge who metes out punishment with appalling fervor.

The Levinson touch is perfect for this story, and the director keeps Pacino under control without counterproductively taming or inhibiting him. Pacino can be just as powerful on "simmer" as he can at full blast. When we see Pacino in a courtroom, however, many of us do yearn for the kind of volatile histrionics he brought to " . . . And Justice for All" in 1979.

Pacino's closing "argument" then, with its "I'm out of order? You're out of order" mantra -- and the "defense rests" coda -- were unforgettable, and fortunately he has a moment in "Jack" that's similarly bombastic, when the opposing lawyer likens Kevorkian's mercy-killing to genocide.

It seems impossible that more than 30 years separate those two performances -- and that Al Pacino will turn 70 on Sunday.

"You Don't Know Jack" is really a testimonial to the perseverance and determination of two powerhouse individualists: Kevorkian and Pacino. Thanks to Pacino, we will remember Kevorkian more vividly than we ever would have otherwise -- almost as indelibly as his patients would remember him if they were still alive.

"You Don't Know Jack"

(135 minutes) debuts Saturday night at 9 on HBO.

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