A film review by Craig J. Koban April 27, 2010

Rank:  #19



2010, no MPAA rating, 135 mins.


Al Pacino: Jack Kevorkian / Susan Surandon: Janet Goode / John Goodman: Neil Nicol / Danny Huston: Geoffrey Fieger / Brenda Vaccaro: Margo Janus


Directed by Barry Levinson / Written by Adam Mazar

When a friend of Dr. Jack Kevorkian tells him during one scene in YOU DON'T KNOW JACK that the decision for a patient to have their life ended can’t be placed in their hands, the infamous "Doctor Death” replies, "Whose hand are you going to put them in?” 

Born to Armenian parents who survived that nation's genocide, Kevorkian never grew up wanting to explicitly kill people; rather, he wanted to help people.  The pathologist, painter, composer, and instrumentalist did not hope to be the poster boy for an medical/ethical controversy that is still polarizing people to this day, but boy…that’s just what he became during his eight year odyssey starting in 1990 when he “assisted” in the deaths of well over 100 people.  Kevorkian himself used the term “assisted” because it was his patients themselves that actually administered the requisite lethal drugs to kill themselves; all the doctor did was connect them to a euthanizing machine that gave the patients the ability to pull their own plug, so to speak.   

There are no easy answers to the type of moral quandaries that Kevorkian’s efforts posed: Yes, these people were suffering under horrendous mental and physical circumstances and would have died slowly and hellishly if they did not kill themselves with the doctor's aid.  Yes, Kevorkian never ostensibly went out of his way to convince his patients to kill themselves (he was shrewd and careful to video tape screening interviews with them to ensure that they alone were complicit with the act of killing themselves).  Yes, he never technically killed any of his patients, sans one (more on that later).  However, the law eventually caught up with him, especially when prosecutors decided to try him on the charge of murder instead of assisted suicide, the latter which was not technically a crime during many of his court cases.  As a result, Kevorkian’s personal crusade against the medical establishment came to a crashing halt in 1999 when he was found guilty and sentenced to 10-25 years for second degree murder.  He was eventually released in 2007 for good behaviour. 

If you exclude its horrendously and unforgiveably lame title, the new HBO bio-drama YOU DON’T KNOW JACK does just about everything right when telling the right-to-die campaign of Kevorkian: Instead of going on the path most taken for standard biopics, director Barry Levinson and writer Adam Mazer (who penned one of the most underrated real world political thrillers in recent years in BREACH) opted to hone in on the years that, let’s be frank, we all care about the most – the period between 1990 and 1999 where Kevorkian made it his life’s mission to help suffering people die with honor and compassion.  It rightfully concludes with his final court prosecution – when he made the catastrophic error of attempting to defend himself, which proved to be his legal Waterloo.  All through it, though, he steadfastly never admitted to doing any harm or wrongdoing.  He once famously stated that “dying is not a crime” and that the doctors all cowards in one form or another because they are driven more by religious imperatives than by merciful ones.  Regardless of where you stand on the issue, there is no denying that he has a point: his methods of assisting people allowed them to die relatively peacefully and painlessly and usually with loved ones right besides them.  How many of us have had to see the ones we care about suffer agonizingly slow deaths in hospital beds for months? 

Kevorkian had one major failing, though: his eccentricity, stubbornness, and ego got the better of him in the end.  That, and he made the cardinal blunder of appearing on 60 Minutes in 1998 where he showed Mike Wallace a video of him actually administering the lethal drugs to a 52-year-old ALS sufferer named Thomas Youlk.  Although Youlk more than made the case that he gave the doctor consent to die, he was unable to turn on Kevorkian’s machine on himself.  As a result, the doctor became the primary administrator of the drugs that killed Youlk, essentially making him an active participant in his direct death.  Worse off was the fact that he advertised the fact on national television and dared the police and prosecutors to come after him.  He certainly had gumption, but not much in the way of common sense.  That, and in the end, he did break the law and deservedly went to prison. 

All of this is covered in YOU DON’T KNOW JACK, and part of the brilliance of the film is how it does not become a grotesque carnival show highlighting the more offbeat eccentricities that made Kevorkian a kooky punch line for late night comedians.  The film is a remarkably democratic outlook that takes great pains to forge Kevorkian as a proud, brave, but obstinately narrow-minded and reckless man.  The teleplay never overly romanticizes his plight nor does it overwhelmingly exonerate him for his misdeeds.  This is a more all-encompassing portrait of a complex public figure that challenged centuries of medical ethics and morals.  He thought that he was a person that believed in humanity and life, not death and misery, and in turn believed in the larger cause of allowing people to live – and die – with honor and graciousness.  In some ways, the script forges ahead as a standard one-man-against-the-establishment melodrama, but it slowly and patiently emerges as more harrowing, thoughtful, and intensely poignant human interest piece. 

Al Pacino has certainly floundered in recent years with some of his big screen credits (88 MINUTES and RIGHTEOUS KILL were forgettable messes and failures), bit his small screen performance as Kevorkian is an instant career rejuvenator and one of his best.  For the first time in an awfully long time I felt the presence of the actor shedding away all of his more infamous and histrionic performance idiosyncrasies and instead totally inhabit the mind and body of character, and he plays Kevorkian with an commendable restraint, poise, and humility; he is certainly far away from the showboaty theatrics that many lay filmgoers associate with the actor, and the film is definitely more powerful because of it. 

Withered by coarse grey hair, deeply entrenched wrinkles, a wispy and breathless Michigan accent and adorned by the thick rimmed glasses, hats, and sweaters that typified Kevorkian’s style, there is rarely a moment where Pacino’s performance feels insincere or lacking in nuance.  On top of that, Pacino captures all of the intrinsic contradictions of the doctor: he was a meek, mild-mannered, and friendly individual, not at all immediately interested in celebrity fame or money (he never once charged for his services).  However, he was a ravenous lion when it came exhibitionism while fighting for his cause (he once went to trial in a powdered wig and costume to protest his persecution and even went as far as staging a near one month hunger strike while in jail).  He always had his eyes on his ultimate mission: to show the world that the medical laws of the land were – in his mind – unjust and medieval and he wanted to challenge the notion that assisted suicide was immoral and a sin.  Kevorkian may have gone about it the wrong way, but he at least was courageous enough to risk his own skin for what he believed. 

On top of the superlative work by Pacino, which grounds the film with a strong undercurrent of humility through and through, YOU DON’T KNOW JACK also is a triumphant return to form for Barry Levinson, who has not made a decent feature film since 1997’s WAG THE DOG.  He does one thing exceedingly well here: he shoots the film in a straightforward, fly-on-the-wall sensibility, which allows the palpable drama and emotion to come to the forefront.  He also accentuates the film’s settings (mostly Kevorkian’s home state of Michigan) in grainy textures and with dark muted neutral hues, which echoes the impartiality of the script's stance that it takes on the character himself.  In a bit of digital trickery ala FORREST GUMP, Levinson cunningly splices in footage of Pacino’s Kevorkian interviewing the real patients of the doctor that, during their respective times, were pleading with him to assist in their deaths.  These moments are haunting, chilling, and raw, and the way Pacino does not grandstand is noteworthy: he sits idle in the background and lets these real victims sell the scene.  As a result, the film has a tactile emotional quality: having actors perform as these patients would have been a misstep. 

A lot of readers have questioned why I "waste" time reviewing “TV movies,” but after watching films like TEMPLE GRANDIN, RECOUNT, and now YOU DON’T KNOW JACK, there is ample evidence to suggest that HBO can provide movies just as engrossing and transfixing as anything at your local cinema multiplex.  Pacino – in a bravura performance that is sure to net him an Emmy – certainly has not been granted an opportunity to shine on the silver screen as he does here on cable and Levinson – after years of disagreeable efforts like SPHERE, BANDITS, ENVY, and MAN OF THE YEAR – evokes a understated style and compassion for the material that he has not demonstrated in many a moon.  YOU DON’T KNOW JACK also has other strong credits as well, like dependable side performances by John Goodman and Susan Sarandon as Kevorkian’s friends, the great Brenda Vaccaro as the doctor’s feisty and snarky sister (she holds her own in scenes against Pacino, no easy feat), and lastly the great Danny Huston as long-time Kevorkian attorney Geoffrey Fieger.  Ultimately, YOU DON’T KNOW JACK thankfully never emerges as a simplistic, sensationalistic, or rudimentary portrait of one of the more notorious celebrities of the late 20th Century.  Instead, it finds a cunningly objective manner of making Kevorkian both an noble-minded underdog crusader and a kooky eccentric that oftentimes deserved lampooning.   

Best of all, YOU DON’T KNOW JACK highlights one of the central hypocrisies that appears when critics lambaste Kevorkian’s past efforts by labeling him as interfering with “God’s will” for people.  A few weeks ago when he appeared on "Anderson Cooper 360" on CNN the host asked the aging Kevorkian whether he thinks doctors play God all the time.  He quickly retorted, “Of course.  Anytime you interfere with a natural process, you are playing God.  The central question he poses, I think, is whether a doctor prescribing medicine to ease suffering is any different than a doctor administering medicine to ease a person into death.  Currently, Washington, Montana, and Oregon are the only legal places in the U.S. that have doctor assisted suicide, with perhaps more coming to the forefront.  

Hmmm…maybe this crazy old coot was on to something.


CrAiGeR's other

Film Reviews:


RECOUNT  (2008 jjjj


TAKING CHANCE  (2009 jj1/2


TEMPLE GRANDIN  (2010 jjjj






CINEMA VERITE  (2011 jj1/2


TOO BIG TOO FAIL  (2011jj1/2


GAME CHANGE  (2012) jjj



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