A perfect marriage of character and star, “You Don’t Know Jack” is a marvelous fact-based account of an engrossing story, creatively gorged with an embarrassment of riches. Al Pacino disappears into a remarkable sound- and look-alike performance as Dr. Jack Kevorkian, the so-called “Dr. Death” who transformed medically assisted suicide into an all-consuming crusade. The movie, however, is filled with moments both poignant and funny, while still managing to be thought-provoking about the ethics of euthanasia. Throw in fine supporting work from Brenda Vaccaro and Danny Huston in particular, and “Jack” is simply to die for.
The Pacino-HBO relationship previously yielded pay dirt for “Angels in America,” which cast the actor in another showy role as the self-hating homosexual and virulent anti-communist Roy Cohn. Kevorkian is a somewhat different but no less fascinating animal — one who insists in a “60 Minutes” interview that he’s not a fanatic, merely a zealot.
The movie chronicles Kevorkian’s life through the 1990s, after he had already committed himself to using his self-devised “Mercitron” to end the lives of those seeking his assistance as opposed to taking people off life support, a process that he deems “inhumane.”
Kevorkian is surrounded by an intriguing roster of characters, including his sister Margot (Vaccaro), friend and sometimes-collaborator Neil (John Goodman) and the head of the local Hemlock Society, Janet Good (Susan Sarandon). He also meets up with an ambitious, glib, publicity-hungry attorney, Geoffrey Fieger (Huston, under a Monkees fright-wig), who relishes getting Kevorkian acquitted of whatever charges Michigan prosecutors bring against him.
Directed by Barry Levinson from Adam Mazer’s screenplay, the movie makes excellent use of grainy video footage featuring Kevorkian interviewing his patients, which lends an air of both authenticity and weight to the proceedings. Many are remarkably businesslike about their determination to die on their own terms.
It’s Pacino, however, who grabs our attention from the first frame and never lets go, capturing the strange cadence in Kevorkian’s voice and his irritating personality — rendering him, as more than one person suggests, perhaps the wrong spokesman for a righteous cause. Seeing the actor cut loose when Kevorkian foolishly seeks to defend himself in court can’t help but evoke memories of “And Justice for All … ” — although in this case, it’s the defendant who’s out of order.
Impeccably shot and accompanied by a fine Marcelo Zarvos score, “Jack” is precisely the kind of movie that only HBO, at this point, seems interested in doing: The channel’s longform occupies a realm that embraces movie stars, serious subject matter and big historical material — from Winston Churchill to the 2000 election recount — where feature distributors fear to tread, and basic cablers Hallmark and Lifetime can’t afford to go.
Kevorkian’s story is such that it could easily have been exploited or played as farce. To its credit, “Jack” finds the absurdity in the situation without ever crossing those lines.
During a prison stay, Kevorkian boasts that he can “go weeks without food, like Gandhi.” Pacino, by contrast, clearly recognizes the big, juicy meal laid out in front of him by this peculiar character, and it’s a pleasure watching him greedily consume it.