“If you’re going to come to my home, you’re going to have to dress more cheerfully.” When Janet Good (Susan Sarandon) first meets Jack Kevorkian (Al Pacino) in You Don’t Know Jack, she actually does know who he is. President and founder of the Michigan Hemlock Society, Janet is aware he advocates assisted suicide, something of a next step from Hemlock’s protocol, which includes establishing advance directives. And so, when Jack asks if he can use her home to help his first patient die, she’s okay with that. But, she insists, he needs to wear something other than his dowdy sweater and rumpled coat.
This first moment between Jack and Janet comes early in Barry Levinson’s determinedly moving, sometimes provocative film, which premieres 24 April on HBO. And it neatly lays out their essential difference (the ways they share themselves with the world) and their most important mutual conviction, that people have a right to choose who they die. While Jack says repeatedly that he doesn’t care how others see him or the media portray him (a proclamation the film challenges), Janet is careful to look nice and be polite, to put people at ease.
This difference allows the film to compare approaches and raise questions about Jack’s notorious rough edges, without necessarily judging him. Janet is lovely and sensitive, smart and insistent. Jack, for all his shrewdness and moral righteousness, remains remote, difficult, and complicated. He’s not quite unknown, but he is a puzzle, one the film presents with a mix of fascination, bemusement, and occasional awe, but doesn’t pretend to solve.
Janet identifies that puzzle when she first visits Jack at his home. They’ve had a falling out and she’s come to make amends (“We need to have a bigger conversation”); he makes her a sandwich. She tries to understand his anger and his singular drive, already the stuff of headlines following his first patient, a woman with Alzheimer’s he helped to die in the back of his Volkswagen van. As they sit across from one another at his kitchen table, Janet tells her story, of watching her mother “tortured” in a nursing home, dying with bedsores and “her mind gone.” Visibly shaken as she remembers all this, Janet asks Jack, gently, “Who was it for you, your mother or your father? I don’t see any pictures anywhere of anybody.”
Her observation is key. Though Jack works closely with his sister Margo (Brenda Vaccaro) and a medical supply firm owner, Neal Nicol (John Goodman), both of whom assist him in his assisting. But as much as they all believe in the cause, that is, helping patients to die with dignity, Jack resists advice, resists intimacy, and resists support he doesn’t specifically solicit. Sometimes, he sounds willfully ignorant, insisting that his focus on the single patient trumps all other concerns. “What do we care about the media?” he defies Margo, as they’re deciding who to accept as a first case. She makes the reasonable point, “We have to be very careful about our purpose, our purpose is important.”
That purpose, the film submits, comes with a tangle of questions, moral, spiritual, technical, and medical — not to mention legal. Margo finds a medical malpractice lawyer, Geoffrey Fieger (Danny Huston), she’s spotted on TV. Fieger further expands the context for assisted suicide, asserting that it is not a crime but rather, a civil rights issue. As such, Fieger determines it needs to be promoted, at first via local radio and newspapers, then Barbara Walters and the New York Times. In this effort, Jack’s cantankerous and frankly odd self-presentation is alternately helpful and risky. Fieger and Margo listen raptly as Jack tells a radio host (who introduces him as “Dr. Death”) how his machine, the Mercitron, dispenses carbon monoxide. “Gas inhalation always leaves the deceased with a rosy colorful afterglow,” Jack declares, at which point the host suggests their chat is getting “ghoulish.”
This sort of question comes up repeatedly in You Don’t Know Jack, when and where lines exist or might be crossed. Sometimes these are rendered in emotional terms, as when Jack interviews potential patients: their pleas appear in video footage, with occasional cuts to Margo behind the camera, documenting their wishes for later use in the DA’s office (one striking shot has the camera image reflected in her sizeable glasses, her own moist eyes indicating how hard it is to see clearly what’s right, what’s legal, and what’s humane). These images turn up again later in Oakland County prosecutor Dick Thompson’s (Cotter Smith) office or courtrooms. The lawyers seeking to stop Kevorkian are repeatedly stymied by such moving displays of pain and pleas for help: jury members’ tearful faces become shorthand here for the effectiveness of Feiger’s courtroom strategies.
The film notes as well some of Jack’s own tactics, which range between sensational (he arrives at one hearing with a powdered wig and a wooden stock on his neck, to show his contempt for the state’s resort to medieval “common law” to charge him) and heartbreaking.
Again and again, death scenes show his tenderness with patients, indicating his sincere commitment to patients’ needs; tight, fidgety close-ups suggest their anguish and his commiseration, even as he focuses on the logistics of his role. The film repeatedly cuts to corpses after, titled by name and patient number, in washed out colors, sometimes followed by police arrivals, with lights and sirens. This device works a couple of ways, acknowledging the argument against Kevorkian, that he only used his patients to achieve his own social and political ends, but also contrasting with his own sincere interactions with patients — a hand to a cheek, a gaze into dying eyes. Even as the movie resists knowing Jack, it does, like Janet, assume his best intentions.