Review: HBO’s You Don’t Know Jack (Kevorkian)

“I have a God,” proclaims Jack Kevorkian, “his name is Bach. Johann Sebastian Bach.” That one-liner in HBO’s “You Don’t Know Jack” should be enough to tell you that you needn’t  know Kevorkian’s moniker of “Dr.Death” to realize he was different. After assisting 130 patients exercise their right to die and serving an almost 9 year jail sentence, we finally get to see Jack Kevorkian as more than just “Dr.Death,” eloquently portrayed in this almost three hour glimpse of Kevorkian’s life- from his first patients, to his personal relationships and his strong-willed fight to make dying not a crime, “You Don’t Know Jack” never flatlines.

Written by Adam Mazer (“Breach,”) and directed by Barry Levinson (“Rain Man,” “Bugsy”), “You Don’t Know Jack” takes us into the bigger picture of Kevorkian’s life beyond the headlines, jail and act of physician-assisted suicide that he became famous for. We see a man who sought out humanity, who believed in a bigger cause, a better quality of life for society, contrary to popular belief.

Set in 1989, when the 61-year-old Kevorkian sews the seeds of providing the terminally ill with the option of assisted suicide, “You Don’t Know Jack” gives us a well-rounded portrait of a man that’s been a long time coming.

Born to Armenian parents who survived the Armenian Genocide, Kevorkian had no interest in killing people,but helping them. So much in fact that he was willing to risk his life to give them an option to end theirs, whose meaning had been lost in illness, disease and pain.

Al Pacino, who breathes humanity in this “screw ball pathologist,”  is so believable as Kevorkian, with his grey hair, thick framed glasses, signature cardigans and hats (thanks to costume designer Rita Ryack) that it almost feels like Kevorkian is portraying Pacino and not the other way around.

A humble, yet eccentric character, Kevorkian isn’t all that interested in money or fame, likes his turkey without fat and his coffee full of caffeine. He argues that “all doctors think they’re God,” and doesn’t care what people think, but what his patients feel. In fact, he never charged a patient for the procedure and paid for all medical materials himself.

When a friend adamantly tells him that decisions like death can’t be put in the hands of patients, Kevorkian argues, “Whose hand are you going to put them in?”

Despite its subject matter, the film is full of life, with the camera panning constantly to family portraits, chotchkies and other symbols of patients, making them human, instead of just an Alzheimer’s patient, a Lou Gehrig’s disease patient or a file in a doctor’s medical records.

The dark, muted colors of the film, set in Kevorkian’s home state of Michigan (although much of it filmed in New York) adds much to the feel and tone as does the original music by composer Marcelo Zarvos, which provides a thoughtful yet haunting backdrop to the story.

Kevorkian pushed buttons. A rare breed of man, he asked society to question what they believe in, to take lessons from history and to challenge the notion that death has no place in life.

But it wasn’t just accomplished through his “Mercitron” machine and outspoken stance in television and newspaper reports, but through his art, whose subject matter is just as uneasy for some as physician-assisted suicide.

The film reveals Kevorkian’s art exhibit, focusing on a painting called “1915 Genocide 1945,” which puts the Armenian Genocide on the same level with the Holocaust by featuring a severed head being held by by an Ottoman and Nazi arm.

“Only our parents, barely teenagers were able to escape,” says his sister Margo Janus. “Growing up we heard stories of bloodshed and it frightened Jack.”

Al Pacino portrays Dr. Jack Kevorkian in a scene from the HBO original film, "You Don't Know Jack." AP Photo/HBO, Abbot Genser

Al Pacino portrays Dr. Jack Kevorkian in a scene from the HBO original film, "You Don't Know Jack." AP Photo/HBO, Abbot Genser

Kevorkian’s Armenian heritage isn’t only mentioned in relation to art and the Armenian Genocide. When the owner of a building Kevorkian rents to establish his “Mercy Clinic,” evicts them, Kevorkian’s friend Neal Nicol (John Goodman) says, “You didn’t think it was going to be an Armenian bakery did you?”

In another scene with Janet Good, who couldn’t have been better executed by anyone but Susan Sarandon, she asks Kevorkian if keeping his feelings inside and trudging along is an “Armenian thing.”

At the same time “You Don’t Know Jack” isn’t well, just about Jack.

The film’s supporting cast,  John Goodman as Kevorkian’s close confidant Neal Nicol and Brenda Vaccaro as his sister, Margo Janus and larger than life attorney Geoffrey Fieger as Danny Huston are superb and join Pacino in melting away their actor facades and blending perfectly into the almost real life supporting cast in Kevorkian’s real life.

It also doesn’t stop short of showing Kevorkian’s opposition – protesters who fervently are against the idea that the ownership of life and death belongs to individuals. With posters proclaiming that “life is God’s choice,” and to choose “health care not death care,” they follow Kevorkian, from his trials, to television reports on him as well as his daily life, though he shows no sign of backing down.

Jack Kevorkian and his "Mercitron" machine

Ultimately, “You Don’t Know Jack” not only succeeds in breathing life into “Dr. Death,” in an objective and accurate way, it also brings the debate of Euthanasia, which is legal only in Washington, Montana and Oregan and physician-assisted suicide to the forefront of the national agenda, something which had laid low for a number of years.

“When a law is deemed immoral by you, you must disobey it,” Kevorkian says. “You must disobey it.”

“You Don’t Know Jack” gives viewers a chance to see Kevorkian’s conviction for the right to die and his legal conviction as a result of it. In the end, the film succeeds in defeating its own title – you are bound to walk away understanding, or at least knowing more about the doctor behind death.

Directed by Barry Levinson; written by Adam Mazer; Produced by Lydia Dean Pilcher, Steve Lee Jones, Glenn Rigberg, Tom Fontana, Barry Levinson, Scott Ferguson; Original Music by Marcelo Zarvos; Cinematography by Eigil Bryld.

Showtimes include:

April 25 – 5:45 p.m

April 27 – 9:45 a.m., 8:30 p.m.

May 2 –  1:30 p.m.,2:10 p.m.

May 5 –  11:30 a.m., 7:15 p.m.

May 8 – 3:45 p.m., ET/2:30 p.m. PT

May 10 -1 p.m., 9 p.m.

May 13 – 12:30 a.m.

May 16 – 10:30 a.m.



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