Al Pacino Dazzles in HBO's "You Don't Know Jack"

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HBO’s You Don’t Know Jack - an account of assisted suicide proponent Jack Kevorkian and some of the 130 suicides that happened in his care over the course of ten years - is a riveting two hours of television.  The film is one of the must see television events of 2010.

You Don’t Know Jack debuts tomorrow (Saturday, April 24) night at 9p.m.  But there are many opportunities to watch since HBO will rebroadcast.  (Click here for HBO’s website.)

You Don’t Know Jack traces Kevorkian’s life from his decision at age 61 to create his first “Mercytron,” (a device that allowed patients to administer their own suicide gases) to his imprisonment for second-degree murder.

The film is A-list throughout.   Directed by Barry Levinson (Rain Man), You Don’t Know Jack stars Al Pacino (as Kevorkian), Susan Sarandon (as  Hemlock Society activist Janet Good), John Goodman (as life-long friend Neal Nicol), Brenda Vaccaro (as Margo, the devoted sister), and Danny Huston (as Geoffrey Fieger, Kevorkian’s flamboyant and ambitious lawyer).

You Don’t Know Jack is the anti-ripped from the headlines in some respects.  The film is a balanced portrait that sets out to humanize this much-demonized figure.  Kevorkian is the perfect fodder for character exploration.  He’s a complicated curmudgeon - a compassionate, fearless and grandstanding provocateur who was often his own worst enemy.

But since the media often sensationalized Kevorkian and slapped him with the easy label of “Dr. Death,” HBO instead explores the unknown -  the painter and poet raised by Armenian holocaust survivors who to this day leads a monkish existence.  And since supporters of assisted suicide are usually propelled into the movement after an agonizing death of a loved one, HBO delves into motive, which is finally revealed in a touching scene between Kevorkian and Janet.

You Don’t Know Jack is really about loss and letting go.  Never maudlin, always understated, the film is nevertheless unflinching and sometimes unbearably sad, as families make their end of life decisions.  Levinson and writer Adam Mazer capture the hopelessness, the relentless pain and despair that drives people to finally choose death. There are some devastating death scenes.

And just as families are losing their loved one’s, Kevorkian’s devoted circle of friends also slips away, one-by-one.  Thus untethered, he becomes increasingly reckless.

Pacino addressed the issue during press tour last January.  He attributed the zealotry to the “loss of two of the close people in his life -  his closest, his sister Margo, who he started with…and when he lost her and then Janet Good, who Susan plays, and Brenda plays Margo, my sister… when I lost them, when Jack lost them, I think it set off something in him, somewhat of a desperation inside and a need to go further with what he wanted to do and kind of an abandon took over….”

While You Don’t Known Jack is difficult to watch at times, there’s also plenty of appropriate humor.  Comic relief is too crude a term, but the life-long friendship between curmudgeonly Kevorkian and his loyal side-kick Nicols is warm and funny.

There are a handful of actors today who can be called masters of the craft.  Pacino is one of them.  Pacino, ever the chameleon,  transforms himself  into Kevorkian - bent, frenetic, distracted and emotionally imprisoned.  (Is there anything this guy can’t do?)  Pacino is a best bet for an Emmy as Outstanding Lead Actor (in a movie).  Brenda Vaccaro is a dark horse for best supporting role.  Vaccaro deserves special mention because of her nuanced portrayal as Jack’s devoted sister.  Look for one scene in a diner, as the infinitely dedicated and patient Margo finally becomes unglued.

Everything about this film is terrific.  It’s an immersion in the 1990’s.  The film is both drama and documentary, with some real news footage seamlessly edited in.  There are few bright, cheery colors.  The washed out pallet syncs with the run-down Detroit setting of working class diners and dismal strip malls.  The music is exceptional although it often recedes into background, mostly because the dialog is so compelling and Pacino is utterly, totally riveting.

Some will view the HBO portrait as too sympathetic.  Kevorkian is etched as a rather heroic figure.  He enraged the medical community working on end of life issues and the HBO film will very likely infuriate people like Dr. Arthur Caplan, director of the Center for Bioethics at the University of Pennsylvania, who excoriated Kevorkian in this MSNBC story.

Nevertheless, You Don’t Know Jack stands on its own merits as a powerfully acted, beautifully shot two-hour film that is not to be missed.

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