Who Really Knows Jack?

It’s odd that a film about Jack Kevorkian should be titled You Don’t Know Jack, because by the movie’s end, you still don’t know Jack. But then, maybe that’s the point: Nobody really knows him.

The former pathologist from metro Detroit, who assisted in the deaths of 130 people, remains an enigma. What really motivated him? Why did he create such macabre paintings, sometimes using his own blood? What about his private life?

The movie, directed by Barry Levinson and partially shot in Detroit, had its local premiere at the Detroit Institute of Arts on April 22. In attendance were Kevorkian, attorney Geoffrey Fieger, screenwriter Adam Mazer, and Kevorkian’s former assistant, Neal Nicol. It makes its HBO debut at 9 p.m. on April 24.

The closest we get to any personal details is through Susan Sarandon, who insightfully portrays Janet Good, founder of the Michigan Hemlock Society and Kevorkian’s friend. She peppers him with questions about why he broke off the engagement to a woman who worked at the downtown Hudson’s. He parries her inquiries. Later, he expresses regret that he didn’t marry because the family name won’t be carried on. “But could you have loved?” she asks. Revealingly, he doesn’t answer. Ego apparently transcends human affection.

It is also through Sarandon that we discover, at least in part, why he helps people die. Al Pacino, who turns in a bravura performance as Kevorkian, explains quietly and affectingly how he watched helplessly as doctors struggled to keep his dying mother alive. “I was powerless,” he mutters.

With his outsize glasses, stooped posture, and trademark baby-blue cardigan, Pacino, although not as gaunt as Kevorkian, looks hauntingly like him. He also has Kevorkian’s speech patterns down pat. Pacino slowly but skillfully reveals how “Dr. Death” imploded in the courtroom when he naively chose to become his own legal representative.

As Kevorkian’s bluff, outspoken sister Margo, Brenda Vaccaro is sterling. Danny Huston doesn’t quite muster the bluster and swagger of Fieger, but he comes close. And John Goodman is effectively measured in his portrayal of Neal Nicol.

There is some local color in the picture, but much of it consists of fleeting images. There’s the downtown Detroit skyline, the Oakland County Courthouse in Pontiac, the Wayne County Building downtown, and a few scenes of Royal Oak.

Curiously, there’s a shot of the old Detroit Free Press building, followed by a newsroom scene with James Urbaniak, who plays journalist Jack Lessenberry. The problem? Lessenberry, a frequent Hour Detroit contributor and former Detroit News staffer, didn’t write for the Free Press; he covered Kevorkian for The New York Times and other publications.

Overall, this gripping picture appears to lean sympathetically with its subject, but it’s not reserved about underscoring Kevorkian’s ego, his penchant for the spotlight, and his errors in judgment.

Before the film, Hour Detroit spoke with Nicol, whose book (with co-author Harry Wylie), Between the Dying and the Dead: Dr. Jack Kevorkian’s Life and the Battle to Legalize Euthanasia, provided the basis for the film. Nicol, a retired corpsman and laboratory technician who assisted with many of Kevorkian’s deaths, said he has known Kevorkian since 1961. When asked if the film was faithful to his book, Nicol said, “There were a couple of moments when I thought, ‘That isn’t quite how this happened, or that isn’t exactly right,’ but I decided to just sit back and enjoy the film. They took some license, with my blessing. The screenwriter, Adam Mazer, did an excellent job.”

Nicol also had high marks for Goodman, who portrays him. “Goodman just nailed the relationship I had with Jack Kevorkian. In their scenes together, I could see myself making those same comments he did.”

 

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