Movie Review: Pacino as Dr. Death

If someone says, "I want to call Dr. Kevorkian," we grasp exactly what that means. You Don't Know Jack, HBO's film starring Al Pacino as the man who made physician-assisted suicide a still-hot national debate, reveals how Jack Kevorkian came to be such a cultural force. His campaign to legalize assisted death gained traction in the 1990s thanks largely to his publicity-hound lawyer, Geoffrey Fieger (Danny Huston). And Kevorkian, who had hoped to get his case to the Supreme Court, managed something bigger: he appeared on 60 Minutes. This sophisticated film suggests that issues can become socially relevant not because their time has come but because they are dragged into the media spotlight.

The movie is often as entertaining as its jokey title, but always more thoughtful. When Kevorkian needs a lawyer, his sister suggests the only one they've heard of: some guy named Fieger she's seen in TV medical-malpractice commercials. That fame-craving lawyer was a perfect if accidental fit. On camera with local reporters, Fieger taunts a Michigan prosecutor into charging his client with a crime—"This is how you play the media, Jack," he says—and the news goes national. As a friend affectionately says after the story lands in NEWSWEEK, "You're not a local quack anymore, you're America's quack."

Displaying its own media savvy, Jack is sympathetic to Kevorkian but not polemical. It doesn't have to be, because it so effectively uses Kevorkian's actual tapes of patients. Having broken with Fieger after several acquittals, Kevorkian wants an-other test case and crosses a legal line. Rather than having a patient self-administer a suicidal dose of drugs, he gives the lethal injection to a man with ALS (Lou Gehrig's disease) who can barely speak or move, then shows his recording on CBS. Kevorkian's wrenching tape of Thomas Youk's request to die, and of the death itself, is carefully edited and deftly inserted into the movie to startling yet sympathetic effect. Just as powerfully, the film includes other Kevorkian tapes of patients using their last reserves of strength to say, "I want to die"; instead of seeming exploitative, they add a layer of reality and show how potently news and fiction can blend.

Fieger parlayed his fame into a failed run for Michigan governor. Kevorkian, now 81, was convicted of second-degree murder in the Youk case and spent eight years in prison; that's where the movie leaves him. But the euthanasia debate has continued to rage through high-profile right-to-die stories such as Terri Schiavo's. The film, director Barry Levinson's smartest since Wag the Dog, now becomes part of that conversation. It lands in a media world that spins ideas even faster than it did in the '90s; almost overnight, the phrase "death panels" morphed from a far-right scare tactic to a late-night punch line during the recent health-care debate.

Relax about Pacino's tendency to chew the scenery. He's terrifically restrained—even his flat Midwestern accent. His complicated Kevorkian comes close to being a lovable old coot in a cardigan and fishing hat, but he's also rude and anti-social. He may be a weird guy, but he's a zealot, not a murderer. Until this film, we have not glimpsed a human beneath the ghoulish Dr. Death figure. That fleshed-out image matters because Kevorkian remains a touchstone in the euthanasia debate. In a Vanity Fair/CBS poll last month, 40 percent of those asked said he was "not as bad as he's made out to be," and 34 percent chose "egomaniac who takes advantage of sick people." Like the movie's title, the poll put a cheeky gloss on a serious question. Making the grim message palatable may be the new, fashionable twist in burnishing Kevorkian's image.