Kevorkian Biopic Elicits Mixed Feelings

Al Pacino breathes life into "Doctor Death"

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HBO's You Don't Know Jack, the biopic of right-to-die activist Jack Kevorkian, hit the airwaves this weekend, stirring memories of the 1990s assisted-suicide debate that landed the Michigan physician in prison. With the venerable Al Pacino playing the eccentric doctor, critics expected a delicate take on a topic that--with the exception of "death panel" fears--has stayed low in the American subconscious since Kevorkian's 1999 incarceration. Pacino's portrayal of "Dr. Death" has indeed won praise, while the film's portrayal of the embattled physician and right-to-die debate has evoked mixed reactions.

  • Human After All  Heather Havrilesky at Salon applauds the the film for peeling back the media hype over assisted suicide and presenting a "mundane picture of Kevorkian, and of death itself." Havrilesky praises Pacino's performance in a role that lets him "disappear." She also compliments the depiction of Kevorkian in "the down-to-earth nature of his life and his choices." For Havrilesky, the most important feature of the film is its humanization of Kevorkian and, in the process, a view of his of his rationale for the assisted suicide :
Despite the grim nickname "Doctor Death," despite the disturbing nature of what he did, rigging up tubes or gas masks to help terminally ill patients die, Kevorkian's aims were anything but morbid. After watching helplessly as his mother died slowly in the hospital, lingering on, in pain, unable to speak, he decided to challenge the accepted approach to death in this country, an approach that he saw as inhumane at best, downright savage at worst.
  • The Debate as Seen by Dr. Death  James Poniewozik of Time praises the film's semi-accurate Michigan accents, and more importantly, it's "character study" of Kevorkian. "The film's title is flippant and jokey, but it is appropriate; by getting to know the man behind the media shorthand, it tries to get us to better understand his cause (without necessarily advocating for it)." Like Havrilesky, Poniewozik is taken by the depiction of Kevorkian as flawed and human. "Kevorkian is both principled and a jerk, dedicated to his integrity and arrogant to the point of foolishness. He can be deeply compassionate with the patients whose suffering he agrees to end ... And he can be self-absorbed, utterly without social graces and sensitivity, as when he insults the sister (Brenda Vaccaro) who has sacrificed to assist him but whom he treats with selfish entitlement."
  • 'You Still Won't Know Jack' At The Huffington Post, Lewis M. Cohen finds the biopic itself troubling, a "dangerous distraction" from the real challenges facing the palliative care practitioners at the heart of the assisted suicide debate. "Kevorkian's legacy has long threatened the ongoing and truly compassionate efforts of hospice and palliative medicine, a medical specialty that focuses on symptom and pain management for the terminally ill," writes Cohen.
The problem with Kevorkian is that he is a circus sideshow who claims to be ameliorating suffering by performing euthanasia. His grandstanding hinders the legitimate attempts by doctors and nurses to help people in pain, as we in palliative medicine are forced to mount an educational campaign to explain that physician-assisted dying or euthanasia are not the same as alleviating suffering.
  • A Muddled Message Big Hollywood's John P. Hanlon found the film lacking in substantial debate over the practice of assisted suicide. While Hanlon finds himself relieved that Pacino's Kevorkian is not a glorified figure, the scant regard for the actual practices and problems of assisted suicide is made more glaring by the lack of insight provided into the main characters. "The audience understands what Kevorkian actually did," writes Hanlon, "but there is little discussion about why he became so passionate about helping people end their lives."
  • A Lefty Plot  Sarah Knoploh at NewsBusters smells a left-wing pro-suicide bent, perusing major new outlets from the Boston Globe to USA Today for one-sentence reports of corroborating analysis. "The movie is so one-sided that even many mainstream media reviewers couldn’t help but point it out," scoffs Knoploh. "Apparently they are the ones who actually know Jack."
This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.