Warning: Choose your viewing group for HBO Film's You Don’t Know Jack with extreme care. Be ready to engage in more-than-lukewarm debates with friends, and don’t bring a date unless it’s time to hear about his/her feelings on life, death, the United States government and personal freedom. If a mindless comedy is what you’re searching for, don’t watch this film.
But you should watch it, if for no other reason than to see some marvelous, truly moving performances by legendary actors. Al Pacino portrays Dr. Jack Kevorkian, who’s name rings bells in the minds of just about everyone who lived through the 1990s. The Michigan doctor was launched into a mess of fame and controversy when he assisted terminally-ill patients with ending their lives. His face appeared on the cover of Time Magazine when his actions caused the legislature and the world to question the definitions of homicide and suicide.
The film follows Kevorkian’s journey from obscure physician to a symbol of national debate, and ends with Kevorkian’s 1999 second-degree murder conviction and in between, it tells Kevorkian’s story and vilifies those who opposed his work.
Pacino is magnificent. He portrays Kevorkian as a complex, intelligent, determined person, making it difficult not to sympathize with the doctor. The film also allows viewers a peek at Kevorkian as a person, touching on his history with a terminally-ill mother and his side career as a musician/painter. Toward the end of the film, viewers are left to question whether it was hubris or compassion that motivated the doctor to essentially bring on his own conviction, after directly injecting his last patient with lethal substances and taking the videotape to the media.
John Goodman's portrayal of Neal Nicol, Kevorkian's friend and assistant is notable; Susan Sarandon, who plays Janet Good, president of the Hemlock Society and Kevorkian's friend, is outstanding. One of the film’s most moving scenes occurs when Kevorkian assists Good in ending her battle with cancer. It’s obvious that this isn’t Sarandon’s first time portraying a character on her death bed, and the scene calls for a box of tissues.
Writer Adam Mazer and director Barry Levinson put together a convincing, thought-provoking film—interspersed with real footage of Kevorkian’s consultations—that keeps viewers captivated to the finish, and spurs curiosity about Kevorkian’s story.
Pacino won an Emmy for his performance and is said to have thanked the 82-year-old Kevorkian, who was in the audience at the award ceremony.