There are very few figures in contemporary medicine more polarizing than than Dr. Jack Kevorkian. It's telling that both his defenders and his detractors refer to him — with, respectively, a sense of pride and a tinge of fear — as "Dr. Death". The subject of a new HBO original movie directed by Barry Levinson, You Don't Know Jack, is perceived by many as the vanguard of a movement no less serious and noble than any of the great civil rights victories of the past. Others see him as, essentially, a serial killer.
To Levinson and screenwriter Adam Mazer's credit, they make it clear what side they're on without making it obvious or didactic. A more partisan approach would have sunk the story; if you're making a movie about the pioneer of doctor-assisted suicide, after all, the mere facts of the case speak for themselves. There are innumerable moments that illustrate why some people think of Kevorkian in terms of prowling murderers: he cruises the streets of a very downbeat-looking Michigan in the front of a beat-up van, lurking outside his patients' houses and constantly in fear of the police. When his niece lets law enforcement agents get on his trail by paying for the materials he needs to carry out an assisted suicide by check, he berates her mother in a diner in a scene lifted straight from a gangster movie. And his curious habit of painting grotesque images signed in his own blood conjure creepy thoughts of John Wayne Gacy.
And yet, it's just as easy to humanize the man and his message, again simply by showing the truth. His cantankerous relationship with his sister, his supreme moral confidence that he is doing a work of supreme humanitarian importance, his struggles to continue his work on a shoestring and contempt for "doctors who care more about their stock portfolios than their patients", all paint a picture of a man who is anything but a thoughtless killer. And we are repeatedly shown footage, drawn from Kevorkian's own meticulously documented case files, how he refused innumerable patients' requests to die — people who were severely depressed, not near enough to being terminal, or approaching temporary problems with a permanent approach — hardly makes him seem like an indiscriminate murderer.
Levinson was a very good choice to direct You Don't Know Jack; despite the international acclaim Kevorkian achieved, he operated on a very small scale in generally run-down conditions, visiting patients in the humblest surroundings and treating people who didn't have the resources to seek out the best possible end-of-life treatment. (Mazer doesn't press the class issues raised by Kevorkian's work too hard, but neither does he shy from them.) And Levinson's skill and experience in filming the downscale side of Baltimore, and his affinity for grandstanding outsiders, makes him the perfect man to tell Kevorkian's story, as much of which plays out in cheap diners, dark parking lots, and beat-up apartments as it does in well-lit television studios and grand courtrooms.
But the success of the film, as is the case with most biopics but that of a figure like Jack Kevorkian in particular, must hinge on the leading role. Al Pacino has taken a lot of justifiable heat in the last decade or so for his tendency to flash lots of ham, to let his characters degenerate into toothy, shouting cartoons; how much of that is the fault of the actor and how much of the scripts he's chosen is up for debate, but he more than redeems himself here. Losing himself entirely in the role, Pacino is outstanding as Jack Kevorkian, stoop-shouldered and self-confident but with an air of permanent sadness, riding his bike from place to place and with a peculiar sort of bewilderment at the authorities who prevent him from helping people in permanent agony, who force him into "sneaking around like we were thieves".
He's assisted by a fine supporting cast, as well: John Goodman is predictably terrific as Kevorkian's assistant, and though she disappears halfway through the film, Brenda Vaccaro is outstanding as his sister. (It's also nice to see The Wire's Delaney Williams in a bit part.) Two key roles fall to Danny Huston and Cotter Smith: the former, as attorney Geoff Fieger, is all floppy hair and false confidence ("There is only one side to this story," he tells a New York Times reporter; "ours."), but his eternal cockiness and publicity-hounding-ways end up being as big a thorn in Kevorkian's side as the entrenched legal establishment he helps to battle. He's also at the heart of the very few scenes that don't work. Smith plays District Attorney Richard Thompson; his obsession with convicting Kevorkian, religiously clouded inability to understand his foe's position, and permanently sour face make him an easy villain, but Mazer and Levinson don't go the easy route. They force us to see him as the flip-side of "Dr. Death", a man whose is absolutely certain he's doing the right thing, even as he begs the relieved and grateful families of Kevorkian's patients to betray him. Like his arch-enemy, he doesn't court popularity, continuing to go after Kevorkian even after it's clear that the public has no taste for it.
A rare wedding of two talents perfect for a project, You Don't Know Jack isn't the most elegantly made film, but for a television movie, it's extremely well-done, and almost never makes a misstep. Held together by Pacino's tremendous performance and shaded by details about Kevorkian's life — his parents' history in the Armenian genocide and his mother's terrible suffering as a terminal patient, the way he seemed surrounded by people who died too young, his warring instincts to do everything on his own and his determination to win his case in law so as to allow others to carry on his work — the film is likely the best treatment of the man we could expect, and much more even-handed than anyone could predict. By the time Levinson shows us how prosecutors connived to prosecute Kevorkian in such a way that jury would not be allowed to hear any testimony from the families of people who died to avoid unimaginable pain, when we see him convicted for performing a medical service to beloved children, parents, and spouses that society happily extends to house pets, we wonder why it was even necessary to make a movie about the man, while being very grateful that somebody did.