YOU DON’T KNOW JACK
US, 2010, 134 minutes, Colour.
Al Pacino, Brenda Vaccaro, John Goodman, Susan Sarandon, Danny Huston.
Directed by Barry Levinson.
There was a time, especially in the 1990s, when most people had heard of Jack even if they did not know him. They knew of him. He was Dr Death, the American who not only advocated assisted suicide but actually helped clients to die – and scenes of death were shown on television. He was Jack Kevorkian.
This is the kind of biography which, when advocates for life issues hear about it, sets off alarm bells. (And there is a slang tone in the title which may be a cheeky challenge to opponents.)
However, what Home Box Office in the US have done is to commission a portrait of Jack Kevorkian, some warts and all. The director is Barry Levinson, Oscar-winner for Rain Man. The writer is Adam Mazer who also wrote the interesting film about the FBI traitor (a devout Catholic), Robert Hanssen, Breach. The action takes place during the 1990s when the retired doctor decided to go into action, advocating changes in consciousness and in legislation concerning euthanasia issues and practice.
Those against Dr Kevorkian will not change their opinions. Those in favour of Dr Kevorkian will not change their opinions. An audience which is still considering the ethics and morality of the issues as well as the legal ramifications, will find a film which presents people suffering and wanting to end their pain by death, a very emotional and humanitarian approach to decision-making, evoking sympathy for assisted suicide. This is a reminder that the visual media make their impact through story, identification with characters and their crises, and through sympathies while the print and radio media offer more of an opportunity to listen to different views, listen to them more objectively and consider principles.
That said, it is important to recognise that in contemporary societies where basic values are shared but where there is also a diversity of opinions held in good faith, this kind of film, even if it were propaganda for the issues, which it is not, has a place for points of reference for discussion and debate. (We are usually pro films which support our outlooks, even when they take stands, but get our backs up – perhaps wishing that they be banned - for those which challenge us and differ from our points of view.)
This film has special credentials. Al Pacino gives an award-winning performance, entering completely into the persona of Dr Kevorkian. Kevorkian is not a particularly likeable personality. He is determined, a zealot, who has an abrasive manner, easily accused of hubris. On the other hand, he is a committed doctor who wants to heal people but also treat their pain. He is an isolated man, supported principally by his sister, Margo (a fine performance from Brenda Vaccaro) and his friend who assists him in his work with clients (John Goodman). He advertises for sufferers to come for interviews which were taped. These are interspersed throughout the film. While committed to providing opportunities for death (even inventing a machine to administer lethal doses), he tries to ensure that he has a thought-out decision from those wanting to die.
Protestors and Michigan governor and law enforcement are hostile to Kevorkian and his actions. He is charged. Kevorkian clashes with his legal adviser (Danny Huston) and undertakes his own defence, hindered by his lack of legal know-how and spoken to severely by the presiding judge. He is found guilty and serves eight years in prison, emerging in 2008 at the age of 79. Clarification is needed on whether Kevorkian’s actions are murder or not, and what his intention in his actions really is.
With legislation passed in countries like Holland, Switzerland and the state of Oregon, many nations are opening up discussions again (as in Australia). Any principled and intelligent discussion will not be simply ideological rhetoric but will be involved in listening to and evaluating opposing opinions, appreciating the human suffering dimension so that, whatever the outcome in terms of legislation, the debate is a debate rather than a crusade from either side.
In that sense, You Don’t Know Jack offers some preliminary contributions to the debate.
Further to discussion on assisted suicide, there have been a number of films in recent years, Million Dollar Baby, The Sea Inside, A Short Stay in Switzerland (based on an actual case). In the past there have been television films on mercy killing: The Greatest Show on Earth, Murder or Mercy, Right of Way.
1. Audience knowledge of Jack Kevorkian, his campaigning in the 1990s, the right to death, assisted suicide, his court cases, television appearances, term in prison?
2. Audience attitudes towards assisted suicide, to euthanasia, to mercy killing? Doctors and their ethics to keep patients alive, the service to relieve pain, heal? Issues of killing, murder and the law?
3. Jack Kevorkian and the euthanasia movements around the world, changes of legislation in such countries as Holland, states as Oregon? Switzerland? The legal campaigns? The religious issues? Ethical issues? Humanitarian issues? Issues of life, quality of life? The role of religion and God?
4. The film as a portrait rather than an apologia? The sympathetic portrayal of Kevorkian yet a warts-and-all portrait? The critique? His arrogance, or his zeal? The value of seeing a drama about these issues? A contribution to campaigning, to debating?
5. The impact for the audience, those in favour of assisted suicide, those against? Would the film change attitudes? The importance of the emotional response and the visuals and the storytelling? The lesser impact for rational and principled considerations because of the storytelling and the emotions?
6. Al Pacino and the skill of his portrait of Kevorkian? Kevorkian in his seventies, his career as a doctor, retired, lonely, his strange paintings (and the later exhibition and Janet Good’s comments)? As a doctor, his beliefs, coming out of retirement, finding a cause, committing to it? The importance of the support of his sister Margo? Neal Nicol and the friendship, the support, assistance? Janet Good and the Hemlock Society? The US and the debate, the comparison with other countries? Assisted suicide in practice? The role of the law, challenging of the law in court, failure and the consequence of prison?
7. Kevorkian as a person, his personality, age, commitment, abrasive? His absolute certainty, determination? His advertising, finding the cases, the interviews? Margo and her taping them? The detail of the first case, the discussion, the health situation, the husband and his contribution, decisions? The listing of the various patients during the film? The tapings, the illnesses, the pain, the family, the decisions? Choice, the phrase of dying with dignity? Kevorkian and his building the machine, the applications? The issue of flicking the switch – the person to die doing so? The language used about death, assistance, intentions?
8. The character of Margo, the devoted sister, her support, work for Jack, helping, her daughter, the tapings, her being sacked, the argument with Jack, the reconciliation, her death and the funeral?
9. Neal Nicol, his goods, the home with Jack, the arguments, assisting, watching the court case?
10. Janet Good, the Hemlock Society, her speech, discussions with Jack, the case, offering her home, her husband not wanting to use their home?
11. The lawyer, his knowledge of the law, his belief in Kevorkian’s cause, their discussions, issues, the sympathy of his wife? The clash about the management of the court case, his knowing the law and Kevorkian not knowing it, his exasperation, watching with both admiration and irritation?
12. Kevorkian on the media, the hostile radio session and the mocking questions? The 60 Minutes? The scenes of assisted suicide actually shown on television?
13. The protesters, their principles, crusaders, the placards, the venomous and abusive protesters?
14. Michigan lawyers, the government, the governor? Offended, being challenged by Kevorkian, charging him, bringing him to court, the preparations, the behaviour in court?
15. The judge, her attitude, the intellectual response to the case, the details of the law, her advice, Kevorkian’s reactions, his behaviour in the court? Bringing the witnesses, their not being able to be used, the questioning of the relevance of the evidence supplied? The judge’s speech and the threat of prison?
16. The speeches of the prosecutor and Kevorkian to the jury, the jury verdict?
17. The conduct of the case, Kevorkian being impetuous, sure of himself, ignorant of the law and how it worked?
18. Going to prison, coming out at seventy-nine – and his sense of achievement?
19. The aftermath of seeing a film like this, audiences tested on where they stand on interest in Kevorkian, sympathy towards him? On the issues of assisted suicide and the changing of the law?