Movie and Film Reviews (MFR) Drama You Don’t Know Jack

You Don’t Know Jack

In the nineties, the suicide rate was at an all-time high. Though depression was a main cause, a good portion of the victims were diagnosed with life-threatening diseases and ailments. Sadly, it wasn’t ending their misery fast enough. Many wanted it to end, but couldn’t rightfully take their own life. Dr. Jack Kevorkian had heard enough. He made a machine in which which poison would be in an IV tank and, when the patient would release a clip, the poison would enter their system and kill them almost instantly. This obviously sparked a lot of controversy, mainly over whether or not Kevorkian was murdering his patients.

Converting this into a biopic is a risky move. Telling the story won’t be easy, nor would casting Jack Kevorkian. Barry Levinson does a commendable effort in both departments, knocking the casting call of Kevorkian out of the park with Al Pacino. The rest of the cast is great as well (which includes Susan Sarandon as Janet Good, a confidante of Kevorkian; John Goodman as Neal Nicol, Kevorkian’s best friend who is having problems coping with the situation; Danny Huston as Geoffrey Fieger, Kevorkian’s power-hungry attorney; Brena Vaccaro as Margo Janus, Jack’s loving sister). They all have great chemistry together, making the plot flow nicely.

Levinson tells the story about Jack Kevorkian from the start. As an unemployed doctor, Kevorkian spends his day with his friends and former medical students, mainly Neal Nicol (who took a liking to Kevorkian because he wasn’t an egotistical blowhard). He’s been trying to squeeze his way back into the medical field, but nothing seems to ignite his flame. That is until a string of news reports regarding patients begrudgingly on life support catch his attention. He feels that if a patient is in an insurmountable amount of pain and want it to end, their doctor should do the right thing and pull the plug. Since no doctor in the country feels the same, he concocts his own suicide machine and heads back to the field.

Helping him out with his cause are his sister Margo, friend Neal and newly met Janet Good, an advocate for the right to die. When the media storm rains on Kevorkian, he enlists the help of attorney Geoffrey Fieger, who doesn’t believe he is doing anything wrong. Adversely, Dick Thompson (Cotter Smith) is against the idea, calling it inhumane and a smite against God. He doesn’t want to raise his children in a world where Kevorkian’s methods are allowed and encouraged. The rest of the film consists of Thompson battling Kevorkian’s methods in court, while Jack secretly works on his patients.

Where the film works is the writing. Adam Mazer tells a straight-forward and smartly written story about a struggle of power and life. The communication between the characters is rich in emotion, not being overshadowed by the suicide narrative. Helping enormously are the actors. Exuding great chemistry, it’s easy to get attached to the lot of them, especially the relationship between Kevorkian and his sister, Margo. You can sense the love these two had for each other, even in argument. The film truly shines when these two are on screen.

Where the film crumbles is in its portrayal of Kevorkian’s adversaries. They’re one-dimensional caricatures of libertines, being treated with disrespect. They are viewed as profligate, insinuating that those who agree with them are wrong. Not only is this revisionist, it’s one-sided and derogates a sizable portion of the audience. The story should have been told through both points of view, giving each side their own take. Instead, Levinson focuses on Kevorkian and his supporters and makes his enemies look like incompetent imbeciles. Perhaps telling the story through a biopic as opposed to a documentary hurt the film. Mazer was too focused and concerned with telling a straight-forward story then spouting out facts.

Saving the film are the performances and the plot. I’ll admit to being a bit biased (since I’m more in favor of Kevorkian). However, what drew me in wasn’t the approbation of Kevorkian’s methods, but the relationships that he had with his fellow family, friends and patients. He geniunely seemed to care about those around him, thanks in part to Pacino’s wonderful performance. I just wish the other side of the spectrum was told in a more reasonable fashion. If so, we might have had a perfect film on our hands.

1 thought on “You Don’t Know Jack”

  1. Al Pacino successfully delivers a great performance, while being clinical about the subject.

    The paintings which are exhibited by the protagonist are ‘ghoulish’. However, there is a marked tenderness about his view that he should assist those who need to ‘end’ their suffering due to terminal illness.

    There are legal suits, juries, videos of evidence, court proceedings and a well worded verdict of the Judge.(The Judge asks Al, “Do you know what a prison is? Have you seen The Shawshank Redemption?”, in the course of the trial).

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