Kevorkian Film Takes Sides in Assisted Suicide Debate

It’s not hard to guess where the folks behind the new biopic of Dr. Jack Kevorkian stand on the topic of physician-assisted suicide

HBO’s “You Don’t Know Jack,” debuting at 9 p.m. EST April 24 on HBO, recalls the later years of the man known by many as Dr. Death.

The network’s original content routinely leans left, sometimes only by a matter of degrees (“The Trials of Ted Haggard“), other times without check (“Recount”).

So expecting a fair and balanced debate on assisted suicides from the critically hailed cable channel seems unwise.

The doctor’s methods shown throughout “Jack” are held up as an example of fractured righteousness, particularly during harrowing scenes in which his patients can barely summon the strength to whisper, “I want to die.”

But the film, written by “Breach” screenwriter Adam Mazer, does poke some holes in Dr. Kevorkian’s practices. And Al Pacino’s towering lead performance brings the doctor’s crusty persona to life in ways that bring much needed shading to the story, if not the topic at hand.

The film only pays lip service to the variables at stake here, from Kevorkian working on patients with more treatable issues—like depression—to those who don’t agree with ending life under any circumstances.

Dr. Kevorkian (Pacino) doesn’t understand why doctors in the United States insist on letting their patience suffer unnecessarily when facing terminal illnesses. So he creates a simple device that lets them take their own lives on their terms—under his careful supervision.

His efforts spark immediate controversy, but his long-term friend, Neal (John Goodman), and sister, Margo (Brenda Vaccaro), provide unflinching support.

He’ll need it as news of his handiwork spreads across the state and, soon enough, the nation. His face is plastered across major news magazines, and he uses that fame to share his thoughts on end-of-life issues. He doesn’t seem frightened that his activities could send him to jail—for life.

Dr. Kevorkian continues to find terminal patients eager to end their lives, including those suffering from Multiple Sclerosis and Lou Gehrig’s Disease. Meanwhile, his Michigan enemies start multiplying, from the governor on down, forcing Dr. Kevorkian to hire a lawyer (Danny Huston lurking under an awful wig) to keep him free long enough to keep plying his trade.

While Kevorkian and his inner circle are given plenty of screen time, his opponents only rank a few, fleeting sequences. That might make narrative sense, keeping the focus on Pacino’s bravura, but it does the heated subject matter a disservice.

Those who followed the true-life cases behind the doctor’s handiwork won’t see many surprises here. The film follows a tried and true biopic template, ticking off major events in the doctor’s life and even inserting actual news footage into the narrative. The latter is done with great care, no easy feat.

If viewers can separate their views on Dr. Kevorkian’s work they’ll see a flawed portrait of a man unwilling to bend, let alone break. The scenes featuring him arguing with his sister are the most emotionally substantial, and the closest we get to seeing the humanity within the grumpy doctor. Vaccaro is priceless in a juicy supporting role, particularly when her character decides to make amends with her brother after their latest fight.

Susan Sarandon isn’t given nearly as much to work with as a key player within the Hemlock Society, but her clashes early on with Dr. Kevorkian provide some necessary friction.

Even the doctor’s most ardent supporters here don’t agree with all his actions. Neal speaks out repeatedly about both Dr. Kevorkian‘s methods and his inability to protect himself against criminal prosecution, but the doctor simply won‘t listen.

Director Barry Levinson of “Diner” fame hasn’t crafted a great theatrical film in ages. And while “Jack” can’t measure up to previous films like “Rain Man” and “Good Morning, Vietnam,” it’s his most assured dramatic work in some time.

Pacino also enjoys a creative rebirth with “Jack.” The actor has devolved into self-parody in recent years with his exuberant vocal tics and grandstanding providing fodder for stand-up comics. Here, he transforms into Dr. Kevorkian without a hint of his tell-tale mannerisms.

It’s not just his effective Michigan accent that sells the performance. He physically becomes Dr. Death, down to his stooped posture and cantankerous demeanor. Expect Pacino to add an Emmy to his mantle in the near future.

Frankly, “Jack” could have been far more one-sided in its depiction of a headline-grabbing personality. The script doesn’t shy away from Dr. Kevorkian’s off-putting personality, nor the disdain with which he views those who don’t share his world view. And by casting an actor like Pacino in the lead role gives even those who recoil at assisted suicides a reason to care about the drama on display.

Sure, it’s a tilted biopic, but one with a big-screen pedigree and enough emotionally challenging scenes to keep the debate raging even if the real Dr. Kevorkian no longer crashes the news cycle with alacrity.