Although it premiered on the premium cable channel HBO several months ago, the 2010 Savannah Film Festival featured a special screening of You Don’t Know Jack along with a brief Q & A with the producer. At the Emmys, writer Adam Mazer won Outstanding Writing For a Movie or a Dramatic Special and Pacino won Outstanding Lead Actor in a Miniseries or a Movie. This biopic, directed by veteran Barry Levinson recounts Doctor Jack Kevorkian’s years between the mid to late 1980s through his conviction and sentencing in the mid-2000s.
The film immediately begins as Kevorkian (Al Pacino) is in the midst of setting up shop for death counseling thanks to his friend and assistant Neal Nicol (John Goodman). Kevorkian attempts to befriend another counselor and civil rights activist Janet Good (Susan Sarandon). She resists at first, but with the first successful assisted suicide, she sees the possibilities.
His lawyer Geoffery Fieger (Danny Huston), time after time, successfully defends the doctor through several cases, until of course he runs for office and becomes a political figure. After losing his medical license, Kevorkian attempts to find resourceful ways to limit the use of the carbon monoxide gas that he has left, now that his supply lines are cut off.
The film offers an objective view of Kevorkian’s years as a practitioner and advocate for assisted suicide and the civil rights within the issue. More so, the film reveals the doctor as more of a polymath, portraying the man’s love of poetry, music and painting. He is a renaissance man, who has mastered the arts, sciences, and rhetoric.
Continuing with the objective role of the camera, we are not beaten over the head with those for or against assisted suicide, but rather explaining and revealing the history of this issue. It is difficult to see and know where the factual accuracy begins and ends, but regardless, the film provides a simple portrayal of Kevorkian’s work and the opposition.
Al Pacino disappears into his role, far more than he has in previous parts. Early in the film one can only see Kevorkian, but as the film continues we ultimately still see his Pacino gestures and vocals we have known to love. John Goodman’s supporting role is perfect and rounds out the support for Kavorkian’s character. Susan Sarandon, like Pacino disappears into her role and effectively. In all, the film features stellar performances by these veteran performers.
Director Barry Levinson is no stranger to adapting real-life events (Goodmorning, Vietnam, Rain Man, Man of the Year, etc. ). Here, the director is nearly invisible, with only a few scenes where the camera becomes more active. In one scene with Kevorkian jailed prior to a charge, he successfully mounts a hunger strike for eighteen days. During this sequence in jail, the film expresses the repetition of days through the use of sound and montage to express Kevorkian’s mental deterioration from the lack of nutrition. A well done sequence indeed.
You Don’t Know Jack is another excellent HBO produced cable film about real-life events. The substance of the film can be difficult to portray on screen without evoking opinions of assisted suicide, but the production was relatively objective, sticking to the history and the man himself. There is a lack of cinematic risk in the film, but to keep the intended idea on track, the risks would have to be sidelined.