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TV Weekend: Death Becomes Him

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HBO

I’m not the hugest fan of the kind of biopic film that HBO tends to favor for its original movies: these bio movies (both HBO’s and feature films) are often either straight-ahead recountings of the lives of figures I’m already familiar with or accounts of people I don’t much want to know more about. And nowadays I’m leery of the work of Al Pacino, who can chew through scenery like the Tasmanian Devil apple-coring an oak tree.

But Saturday’s You Don’t Know Jack, a life of Jack Kevorkian—like its recent Temple Grandin biopic—hit the sweet spot for me, filling in the story of someone I knew better as a headline than as a person. And director Barry Levinson gets a restrained, thoughtful performance out of Pacino as the Michigan doctor who crusaded for (and practiced) assisted suicide in the 1990s—while subtly making the matter timely in 2010.

I’m a Michigan native and lived in the state for much of the time that Kevorkian was in the news, and for people acros the country “Kevorkian” became a universal shorthand for euthanasia. And his story has become in a strange way topical again with the heathcare-reform debate—not just because of the demagoguery over “death panels” but because the issue has refocused attention on what constitutes quality care, particularly when medicine is capable of prolonging life, and agony, far longer than it can prolong autonomy and quality of life.

You Don’t Know Jack addresses all these obvious issues, with an approach that, while obviously focusing on Kevorkian’s perspective, gives respectful airing to his opponents as well. But it’s as much or more insightful as a character study of the kind of person capable of fighting the law on this issue, and the principles and flaws that work together to make this possible. The film’s title is flippant and jokey, but it is appropriate; by getting to know the man behind the media shorthand, it tries to get us to better understand his cause (without necessarily advocating for it).

Pacino’s Kevorkian is both principled and a jerk, dedicated to his integrity and arrogant to the point of foolishness. He can be deeply compassionate with the patients whose suffering he agrees to end (mostly by giving them control of a “suicide machine” with which they self-administer a heart-stopping drug, later, in an act that sends him to jail, by directly injecting it himself). And he can be self-absorbed, utterly without social graces and sensitivity, as when he insults the sister (Brenda Vaccaro) who has sacrificed to assist him but whom he treats with selfish entitlement. He starts his crusade out of genuine idealism and persists in it out of genuine vanity.

Through all this, Pacino give the character a modulated read as the cranky, impatient old man who can’t understand why the rest of society doesn’t have the empathy to embrace his work, the logic to see that it’s medically legitimate, or the foresight to recognize him as a great man. Of all actors, Pacino might be expected to indulge the character’s blustery side, but the few times You Don’t Know Jack gives in to excess, it’s more a matter of directorial choices than performance. Levinson too, though, reins in some of his more, er, colorful tendencies; the film’s most showy device, integrating Pacino into archival news footage, is natural and mostly unobtrusive.

(Incidentally, as a Michigan native, I have to credit the film and Pacino for attempting an actual Michigan accent, a rare thing in movies or TV. Judging from life experience and footage of the actual Kevorkian, I’d say Pacino gets it about half right: he nails the flatness of southeast-Michigan vowels ["God" becomes "Gaaad"], but his long o’s sometimes detour into an Upper-Peninsula accent that verges on Sarah Palin / Marge Gunderson territory—accurate for a Northern Michigander, but Kevorkian was from the Detroit area.)

Pacino gets some able assists all around from the supporting cast, including Treme’s John Goodman as a friend and sometime assistant, Susan Sarandon (playing somewhat to activist type, but capably) as a Hemlock Society activist and Danny Huston as Kevorkian’s attorney, and legendary Michigan-politics gadfly, Geoffrey Fieger. (Venture Bros.’ voice actor James Urbaniak also has a small role as a reporter who follows Kevorkian’s story.)

It’s hard for a movie to get so close to a subject without seeming to advocate his views, but You Don’t Know Jack does a solid job of complicating the picture, making it hard to easily dismiss Kevorkian’s arguments or ignore the enormous ramifications of allowing the deliberate end of life. You Don’t Know Jack may be a film about the case for making dying patients comfortable. But admirably, it recognizes that thinking about this, or watching, should be discomfiting.

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