HBO is set to debut its film “You Don’t Know Jack” tomorrow night at 9 p.m. The title, a witty word play of a common slang expression, challenges viewers with the proposition that they really do not know Jack “Dr. Death” Kevorkian, one of the most recognizable faces of the 1990s.
Playing Kevorkian becomes Al Pacino. Indeed, viewing an advance copy of the film, I thought that Kevorkian, whose trials I attended from 1996 through 1999, had resumed his activities of hastening death, which he did more than 130 times before he was tried and convicted for the 1998 euthanasia of Tom Youk. Pacino looks, sounds and moves like Kevorkian in a virtuoso performance where the actor completely loses himself.
Adam Mazer’s script is based in part on “Between Dying and the Dead: Dr. Jack Kevorkian’s Life and the Battle to Legalize Euthanasia,” a 2006 book written by Kevorkian’s friends Neal Nichol and Harry Wylie.
The film is a fairly empathetic portrayal of Kevorkian and a rather unsympathetic portrayal of the legal system in Michigan, where Kevorkian had the criminal justice system tied up in knots as state lawmakers worked through much of the 1990s to close common law loopholes concerning assisted suicide.
In “You Don’t Know Jack,” we learn that Kevorkian was never tried for assisting in the suicide of Janet Adkins, his first and one of his most well-known clients (or patients or victims, depending on your perspective). Because of the vagueness of state law, prosecutors did not have enough to go on.
We also learn that Kevorkian was acquitted in a 1996 trial for the next pair of cases, the double assisted suicide of Sherry Miller and Marjorie Wantz. The case was reinstated after civil litigation challenged an earlier dismissal by the trial court, which ruled there was no governing law for the conduct. The prosecution then went forward on a theory of common law murder, which jurors were unreceptive to in their acquittal and in subsequent media interviews.
The film also includes some significant omissions. For example, “You Don’t Know Jack” mercilessly mocks Richard Thompson, the former prosecutor who lost his seat in no small part because taxpayers were angry that he was spending funds on repeated prosecutions for a seemingly untouchable Kevorkian. But we do not hear anything about John O’Hair, the first chief prosecutor who oversaw the case involving the death of Tom Hyde, which was tried to acquittal in 1994.
In addition, while there is much focus on Janet Good, the former president of the Michigan Hemlock Society played superbly by Susan Sarandon, the film inexplicably omits an entire trial episode in 1997, in which Good was originally named as a co-conspirator of Kevorkian. Charges against her were dropped on compassionate grounds because she had pancreatic cancer. That trial ended in a mistrial, after Kevorkian’s attorney, Geoffrey Fieger, gave an opening statement so inflammatory the prosecutor bemoaned it as “jury arson.” Kevorkian subsequently assisted in Good’s death, which is portrayed sympathetically.
Danny Huston underplays the famously flamboyant Fieger, an excellent decision by Oscar-winning director Barry Levinson, who has directed classics such as “Rain Man,” “Avalon” and “Diner.”
Perhaps the one directorial decision I take issue with is the fictionalized courtroom outburst during Kevorkian’s final trial. While Pacino’s acting is ferocious and consistent with the doctor’s colorful courtroom persona, in his last trial Kevorkian promised to behave like “a guest” in the courtroom, and indeed did so.
Consistently a gentleman to Judge Jessica Cooper, the two had a fine relationship, until Kevorkian told probation authorities during a presentencing interview that they could not stop him. The interview was ultimately stopped when attorney Mayer Morgenroth entered the room, but not before the damage was done. In sentencing Kevorkian to 10 to 25 years in prison, Judge Cooper went on the record and said, famously, “Dr. Kevorkian, you are stopped.”
Kevorkian was released from prison 2007 and still lives in Michigan. But the film ends with his sentencing.
Ironically, while Kevorkian was engaged in his assisted-death campaign, physician-assisted suicide became legal in Oregon, as it has since in Washington state. And the legal battle over assisted death continues, as demonstrated by recent litigation in Montana and ongoing litigation in Connecticut, among other matters.
“You Don’t Know Jack” is a film to see, whether for Pacino’s Emmy-worthy performance, Levinson’s superb direction or to learn the stories of others with central roles in the Kevorkian cases.
Demetra M. Pappas is a lawyer who successfully defended a doctoral study at the London School of Economics and Political Science in 2009, entitled, “The Politics of Euthanasia and Assisted Suicide: A Comparative Case Study of Emerging Criminal Law and the Criminal Trials of Jack ‘Dr. Death’ Kevorkian.”