Al Pacino as Dr. Jack Kevorkian. (Abbot Genser / HBO )
There are three intertwining streams of interest in the unfortunately, if aptly, titled "You Don't Know Jack," a new HBO TV film about Jack Kevorkian, the assisted-suicide man.
There is Kevorkian himself, played by Al Pacino, and the imagined private life of a figure known mostly in news bites, all around the single issue of euthanasia and his hands-on crusade to gain it legitimacy — the man behind the myth, the usual draw of the biopic. There is euthanasia itself, a subject that raises very basic and by no means settled issues about life and death and one's right to one's existence, or rather, nonexistence. (There is also an incidental resonance with the crazy "death panel" rhetoric of 2010.) And finally, there's the fact that the film has been made by and with very talented people, some of whom do not come by television all that often but do good work when they do — better than much of what they commit to the bigger screen.
Pacino and Susan Sarandon headline, with John Goodman, Brenda Vaccaro — nice to see her again! — and Danny Huston adding the primary support. The director is Barry Levinson, who made "Diner," "Rain Man" and "Wag the Dog" for the movies and produced "Oz" and "Homicide: Life on the Streets" for TV.
Although scenes involving the afflicted, terminal and otherwise, are invariably heart-wrenching, the film on the whole is more interesting than it is affecting, which is consonant with Kevorkian's logical, if opinionated, irascible and eccentric character. It's possible to enjoy the art without thinking too much about the content, although thinking about the content is largely prompted and framed by the art.
Levinson and writer Adam Mazer take pains to be evenhanded — "Public crusader or attention-grabbing egotist?" a news anchor asks — but there is, of course, a kind of structural bias in favor of Kevorkian, who is, after all, the reason this meeting has been convened. (The subject himself feels good about it: "The film is superb," Kevorkian told the New York Daily News.)
To the extent it approves or disapproves of him as an agent of change — his testing or flouting of the law, "like Martin Luther King, like Galileo," his methods of dispatch, the hubris that landed him in jail for eight years on a conviction for second-degree murder after he decided to become his own attorney — the film comes down emotionally on the people's right to make this choice for themselves.
Yet it also questions what that means: We see that he rejects applicants who do not meet his test for hopelessness, yet it is his test, after all. The doctor-patient relationship is never an equal one; humans make bad choices, and no less so when in distress.
As Kevorkian, a bustling polymath who also paints, plays the flute and writes poetry (including a limerick on the death of his assistant sister, played wonderfully by Vaccaro), Pacino makes himself aggressively Midwestern, almost to the point of caricature. (The film is set almost entirely in Michigan, in the 1980s and '90s.) If his accent is not quite as broad as Frances McDormand's was in "Fargo," it is hard not to notice it at first, or the way he tucks his head between his shoulders, tortoise-like, to suggest both age and determination.
These moves seem more natural as the film goes on. In any case, it's good to see Pacino, on the edge of 70, playing someone nearer his age. He has left most of his movie-star moves, and his hair dye, at home, and though he is playing a rather odd man — "Gas inhalation always leaves the deceased with a colorful, rosy afterglow," Kevorkian happily tells a radio audience — what's best in his performance is what's most unremarkable and least strange. As Janet Good, founder of the Michigan chapter of the Hemlock Society, and Kevorkian's friend and finally patient, Sarandon, good as always, is similarly deglamorized.
Likewise, Levinson has a deft touch with ordinary people and places, and the film's early scenes, especially, take care of business in a satisfying, sideways fashion, developing character with exposition and finding every avenue for real-world humor. (As Kevorkian's best friend and helper, Goodman is Hardy to Pacino's Laurel.) This is history as character study, and if it settles nothing, it does kick up some worthwhile dust.