Jared Keller at The Atlantic with the round-up. Keller:
HBO’s You Don’t Know Jack, the biopic of right-to-die activist Jack Kevorkian, hit the airwaves this weekend, stirring memories of the 1990s assisted-suicide debate that landed the Michigan physician in prison. With the venerable Al Pacino playing the eccentric doctor, critics expected a delicate take on a topic that–with the exception of “death panel” fears–has stayed low in the American subconscious since Kevorkian’s 1999 incarceration. Pacino’s portrayal of “Dr. Death” has indeed won praise, while the film’s portrayal of the embattled physician and right-to-die debate has evoked mixed reactions.
John Hanlon at Big Hollywood:
Al Pacino stars as Dr. Kevorkian and he gives a fine performance. I had expected the movie to paint Kevorkian in a positive light and I was pleasantly surprised that the movie does not portray him as a sensitive and flawless doctor trying to do the right thing for his patients. In this movie, Kevorkian is seen as a strange and self-centered individual who enjoys being in the spotlight and courting controversy. He is very unlikable and can be cruel to his patients (which can be seen in a dramatic scene of a suicide attempt that goes wrong).
On the other hand, Dr. Kevorkian’s legal opposition is not seen in a positive or appealing light either. Throughout the movie, one politician is seen as continuously attacking Kevorkian and bringing court cases against him. That politician is simply seen as a man with a vendetta trying to stop Kevorkian no matter what. We see him attacking Kevorkian without really understanding why he is so personally passionate about stopping the doctor.
In terms of the patients seen in the movie, it is hard not to empathize with them. They often speak about the pain and suffering they are facing and their deaths are often difficult to watch. Whereas Kevorkian is depicted in a harsh light, his practices of helping patients kill themselves are often seen more positively. Unfortunately, the movie does not feature much of a discussion or debate about the issues involving end of life care and the practices that Kevorkian became famous for supporting.
The biggest disappointment that I had with the film it that it does not provide insight into the main characters, including Kevorkian. The audience understands what Kevorkian actually did but there is little discussion about why he became so passionate about helping people end their lives. The audience does not get to understand who Dr. Jack Kevorkian really is and what he stands for, outside of his obvious belief that doctors should be able to help some patients kill themselves. Reading newspapers or books about Kevorkian could probably enlighten you as to what Kevorkian did that made him so controversial but I hoped that this movie would add more depth to the man and that it would contain more of a discussion and debate about the methods that Kevorkian used.
Rita Marker at First Things:
I first met Jack via telephone in 1989 when we debated on a Cincinnati radio program. At that time he was searching for someone on whom he could test what he then called his “self-execution machine.” The ideal candidate, he explained, could be someone with multiple sclerosis, severe arthritis, or a terminal illness. It wasn’t until after his first victim died that he began to use more media-friendly labels for his gadget, like “mercitron” or “mercy machine.”
The media portrayed him as a retired pathologist. But Jack wasn’t retired, he was unemployed. With the exception of his residency and his military service in the 1950s, he had no clinical experience with live patients. He was even turned down for a job as a paramedic in 1989.
He did write many papers, though, trying to establish a new specialty called “obitiatry,” with his ultimate aim being an “auction market” using organs taken from “subjects” who were “hopelessly crippled by arthritis or malformations.” What a guy.
As for compassion, decide for yourself. In 1986, he described experimentation in which “subjects,” including infants, children and the mentally incompetent, would be used for experiments “of any kind or complexity.” Then, if the subject’s body was still alive after experimentation, “death may be induced” by such means as “removal of organs for transplantation” or “a lethal dose of a new or untested drug to be administered by an official executioner.” Four years later, he penned a statement explaining that the “voluntary self-elimination of individual and mortally diseased or crippled lives taken collectively can only enhance the preservation of public health and welfare.”
Yet, public perception of Kevorkian as a kindly doctor who eased the suffering of terminally ill patients remains. This, despite the fact that many among his 130 known victims were not “terminally ill.” In fact, autopsies found that some had no serious physical maladies at all.
Along with the pleasure of watching Pacino flesh out this strange, stubborn man, bickering amiably with his friends in a scratchy Midwestern accent at poker night or matter-of-factly interviewing patients about why they want to end their lives, HBO’s biopic demonstrates beautifully how the profile of a strange controversial figure like Kevorkian can be transformed into a moving, eye-opening story. Like Kevorkian himself, this film isn’t a splashy attention seeker, but its charms are apparent within the first few minutes, from Jack’s rambling, off-topic conversations with his friend Neal Nicol (John Goodman) to his humble little apartment, with its odd ambient light and framed photographs. Instead of glamorizing Kevorkian or making him appear more heroic or more suave than he is, the filmmakers embrace the down-to-earth nature of his life and his choices. Each scene, each shot reflects this perspective: the wide angle of Kevorkian crouched under his VW van, working on it, as activist Janet Good (Susan Sarandon) approaches to tell him she’s sorry she couldn’t help him with his first patient; the off-kilter banter with his sister Margo (Brenda Vaccaro) that always skitters around the darkness of what Kevorkian is taking on.
Most important, “You Don’t Know Jack” presents what many of us missed back when Kevorkian’s face was on all the magazine covers, navigating the kind of media storm that can make even the most unassuming idealist look like a grandstanding opportunist. Despite the grim nickname “Doctor Death,” despite the disturbing nature of what he did, rigging up tubes or gas masks to help terminally ill patients die, Kevorkian’s aims were anything but morbid. After watching helplessly as his mother died slowly in the hospital, lingering on, in pain, unable to speak, he decided to challenge the accepted approach to death in this country, an approach that he saw as inhumane at best, downright savage at worst.
Death doesn’t have to unfold the way we assume it does, Kevorkian argued. No one should necessarily have to accept years of suffering through whatever extended nightmare awaits them, in the hospital, in hospice, in the nursing home. Death isn’t some frightening, terrible thing. Just because we spend most of our lives trying to avoid its very existence, just because it’s depicted in books and movies and works of art as some shadowy, mysterious, dramatic presence, that doesn’t mean we’re utterly powerless in the face of it. As taboo as it is to look at it directly or to dictate its terms, death can simply be a choice to stop living.
Kevorkian himself didn’t always make the most rational choices. After helping 130 terminal patients end their own lives, Kevorkian had the audacity to show footage of himself administering a lethal injection to an ALS patient on “60 Minutes,” after which he openly dared authorities to do something about it. He then represented himself in his murder trial — stubborn idealists as passionate as Kevorkian aren’t always so open to advice in these matters — and subsequently spent eight years of his life in jail. Even as we witness Kevorkian skidding off the tracks, as his friends and former lawyer look on, cringing, it’s hard not to admire his tenacious adherence to his own principles. He didn’t want to help people behind closed doors, he wanted to change the laws of the land. He accepted his fate with an understated shrug. In his mind, he really had no choice. “When a law is deemed immoral by you,” he tells anyone who’ll listen, “you must disobey it.”
The film conjures a complicated picture of Kevorkian. But even with such witty, touching dialogue and such a moving performance by Pacino, what we remember most clearly at the end of this film are Kevorkian’s patients. These people didn’t see Kevorkian as “Doctor Death,” they saw him as an angel, one who might finally deliver them from their suffering.
Peter Hall at Cinematical:
There are a few moments where the tone of the film threatens to become a tad too overbearing. It’s difficult to watch what are essentially re-enactments of Kevorkian’s recorded sessions with his patients, but that’s to be expected. It would be disingenuous to shirk the real world implications of the troubling subject matter in favor of a less depressing film experience, so it’s hardly a complaint that a film about an inherently sad issue is, well, often quite sad. Levinson and company do their best, however, to inject appropriate levels of levity at regular intervals to shield You Don’t Know Jack from becoming the joyless film it may have been in less balanced hands; or, inversely, the dark comedy it could have been in another’s.
Instead You Don’t Know Jack does an admirable job of walking strictly in Kevorkian’s strange but fascinating shoes. Unsurprisingly, by film’s end the audience should, if nothing else, feel that they know far more about the mindset and motivations of the doctor than they’ve been given from superficial media reports that opt for cheap nicknames like “Dr. Death” over even attempting to paint a compelling portrait of the man behind the name.