Sunday 12 December 2021

Movie Review: You Don't Know Jack (2010)

The factual story of the doctor who forced a discussion on medically-assisted death, You Don't Know Jack portrays a maverick shaking up the world of medicine.

In Detroit of the early 1990s, semi-retired Dr. Jack Kevorkian (Al Pacino) starts to act on his conviction that doctors should be allowed to help their patients die. With support from his sister Margo (Brenda Vaccaro) and friend Neal Nicol (John Goodman), a medical technician, Kevorkian develops the rudimentary "Mercitron" machine, allowing patients to self administer a cocktail of lethal chemicals. He is careful to videotape interviews with each of his patients as they convey their wish to die, and also records their final moments.

As news spreads of his activities, more patients suffering from debilitating conditions seek his services. Kevorkian triggers a national controversy and debate about the right-to-die, and becomes known as Dr. Death. Michigan's state prosecutors haul him into court on several occasions, but his lawyer Geoffrey Fieger (Danny Huston) is victorious every time, because there is no law against assisting suicide. By the late 1990s, Kevorkian becomes eager to enshrine the right to die into law.

Dr. Kevorkian created his legacy in the moral morass where medicine, religion, and the law intersect. This HBO production tells his story in a rather grey semi-documentary style, the controversial material sidelining any attempts at artistry. Director Barry Levinson and writer Adam Mazer focus on the actions and motivations of a unique historical character, tracing factual events and leaning on Al Pacino to embody the doctor's headstrong idiosyncrasies.

Mazer is sympathetic to Kevorkian's convictions that the medical profession needs to re-assess how patients who want to die are treated. His actions stem from a desire to end suffering and respecting patients' wishes. His opponents in the form of street protesters and state prosecutors are driven by religion and dogma, pushing court cases based on no viable laws. Kevorkian and his lawyer Fieger are able to swat away the court challenges, emboldening the doctor. He then pushes further and starts to challenge new limits with the intent of seeking an audience with the land's highest court.

As a single man with no family commitments and near the end of his career, Kevorkian is presented as having nothing to lose as he challenges the status-quo. His motivations stem from personal experiences, and are gradually revealed through Pacino's soulful performance. Levinson rounds out his protagonist with character quirks including frumpy clothing, picky dietary habits, willingness to go on hunger strikes, and, ironically, a steadfast determination to never lend a helping hand when it comes to carrying physical objects. 

As portrayed by an animated Danny Huston, lawyer Geoffrey Fieger radiates swagger pushing into arrogance. In comparison, the other characters surrounding Kevorkian are short-changed. Sister Margo and medical technician Neal barely progress beyond props, and advocate-turned-friend Janet Good (Susan Sarandon) is lost in the shuffle.

It may lack panache and cinematic creativity, but You Don't Know Jack does set the record straight in revealing the human behind the moniker.

All Ace Black Movie Blog reviews are here.

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