HBO's You Don't Know Jack (Kevorkian)

Was getting to know Jack Kevorkian, the assisted suicide doctor, a culturally worthy project? How well did the biopic do in presenting the man and the issues?

Featured Responses

  • Instead of nuanced moral discourse, we got legal dramas. Lane Fenrich

    You Don't Know Jack, HBO's biopic about Dr. Jack Kevorkian, left me both unsettled and deeply unsatisfied.  If you believe, as I do, that individuals have a right to death with dignity, you will likely greet this film as a powerful warrant for your views.  If, on the other hand, you believe that individuals do not and should not have the right to choose the time of their death and that doctors are obligated to prolong life as long as possible, my guess is that nothing in this film will change your mind.  Notwithstanding the title's implicit promise that we might, after two and a quarter hours, "know Jack" a bit better, the film sheds remarkably little light either on Kevorkian himself or on the issues he came to represent.  Indeed, Kevorkian remains almost as much a mystery at the end of the film as at the beginning as do the other key players, especially those opposed to assisted suicide or repulsed by what they know of Kevorkian's methods or both. 

    There isn't a single conversation in You Don't Know Jack-not one-in which characters discuss either the ethics of end-of-life decisions per se or how, if at all, to balance what Kevorkian off-handedly refers to as "self-determination" against the complicated mix of norms, expectations, and legitimate fears that we loosely term "the greater good."  In that regard, the film typifies what has come to pass for political debate in this country, with two broadly defined "sides" lobbing slogans (they don't even rise to the level of diatribes) at one another rather than engaging in something as risky as reasoned discussion.  Kevorkian's critics call him a Nazi.  He dismisses them as Puritanical, delusional, or simply stupid.  Worse, although a good many thoughtful people have profound reservations about assisted suicide, the filmmakers dismiss their objections out of hand, opting instead to depict Kevorkian's opponents almost exclusively as sign-carrying, car-pounding, self-righteous crazies.  By the end of the film, I yearned in vain for a single scene in which someone said something that made me think.  Instead of nuanced moral discourse, however, we get dumbed down legal dramas in which Kevorkian's attorney out-maneuvers the opposition (when Kevorkian is finally convicted it is at least in part because he has chosen to represent himself) but the core issues remain not only unresolved but undiscussed.

    Don't get me wrong: there are a number of powerful moments in You Don't Know Jack.  Luckily for the filmmakers, Kevorkian carefully videotaped interviews with his patients-often accompanied by their families-from which they cull stories that are not merely heartbreaking but wrenchingly so.  Kevorkian's first patient, for example, 54-year-old Janet Adkins, and her husband describe her rapid descent into the fog of Alzheimer's and the horror with which she contemplates the moment when she won't recognize the person she has loved for her entire adult life.  In Adkins' words, all she has to look forward to is "loss, loss, loss, loss, loss..."  By the same token, Sherry Miller, Thomas Hyde, Hugh Gale, and Thomas Youk plead for an end to lives they regard as already lost to multiple sclerosis, Lou Gehrig's disease, or emphysema.  

    As wives, fiancées, and other family members (their voices mostly unheard here although Kevorkian encouraged them to speak in the actual interviews) struggle to balance anticipatory grief with respect for their loved ones' wishes, Kevorkian asks each of his patients to say what they want "in plain English."  In some cases, the answers are excruciating to watch, especially if one has sat by the bedside of a friend or family member trapped in a body they no longer control. Thirty-five-year-old Thomas Hyde and 52-year-old Thomas Youk, for example, can communicate only with the assistance of others: they are, in fact, unable to respond in the plain English that Kevorkian asks for and must rely on Hyde's fiancée and Youk's wife to repeat their answers so they can be understood.  Confined to wheelchairs by ALS, dependent on others for even their basic needs, and yet fully aware of themselves and of the steadily increasing debilitation that lies ahead of them, the two men ask for an end to their suffering.  It would be difficult to imagine a more compelling illustration of what is at stake: should these individuals have the right to decide for themselves that their lives are no longer worth living?  Or is that a decision that individuals cannot or should not make for themselves?  To my mind, the answer is obvious.  As Geoffrey Fieger, Kevorkian's attorney, puts it: "How is it possible that a mentally competent adult cannot look a doctor in the eye and say ‘I've had enough.  Help me.'  It just can't be."  And yet...the answer to this question is anything but obvious.  If only the filmmakers could have accepted that, this might have been a film worth remembering, rather than one simply worth watching.

    Lane Fenrich is a cultural historian of the twentieth-century U.S. He is finishing a book project entitled "Envisioning Holocaust: Visuality and Memory at the End of the Second World War" (forthcoming from the University of Chicago Press). He is working on a second project entitled "Fear of Spying: Learning to be Normal in America's Queerest Decade." He regularly teaches "The U.S. since 1968," "U.S. Gay and Lesbian History" as well as courses in Gender Studies at Northwestern University.



  • It was an exercise in moral Botox. Mary Eberstadt

    Finally, a Hollywood offering that even the most cynical critic could not possibly have made up: a multimillion dollar commercial catapult aimed at hurling into the progressive pantheon one of its most macabre demigods ever -- a convicted murderer and "assistant" to the deaths of more than 100 people, whose early enthusiasms included siphoning blood from corpses into living humans and experimenting with the eyeballs of the dying and dead; whose public statements about the uselessness of the sick amount to Goebbels Lite; and whose artistic offerings include subjects like decapitation and a child eating the flesh off a decomposing corpse. Did we mention that Kevorkian sometimes painted with his own blood?

    Yes, that is just part of the record now being scrubbed clean by "You Don't Know Jack," a gorgeously shot HBO movie about Doctor Death directed by the exquisitely acute Barry Levinson, written by the able Adam Mazer, and featuring the incomparable Al Pacino with an all-star backup -- virtually every member of which is a Hollywood progressive in fine standing.

    As an exercise in moral Botox, the movie is unquestionably state of the art. It calls to mind for starters the efforts some time back by progressive Norman Mailer, who in the 1970s took it on himself to exonerate a murderer named Jack Abbott. These efforts, of course, Abbott promptly repaid by murdering someone else within weeks of being loosed from the slammer. On the other hand -- to be fair -- if it's sheer body count we're talking here, Jack Abbott seems a plodding amateur compared to Kevorkian.

    Thanks in part to the work of bioethicist Wesley J. Smith, we do indeed know plenty already about the doctor who might better be called Peeping Jack - more, in fact, than some readers will be able to stomach, even in a brief telling. As a medical student, he stalked corridors and entered rooms to watch people die. He next stalked prisons performing executions, repeatedly seeking the bodies of the condemned for experimentation -- a craving that led ultimately to his being ousted from residency in 1958. 

    He pioneered, if that is the word, experiments in transfusing blood from corpses into live people (and gave at least one human research subject hepatitis by doing so). He wanted to pioneer other tests too, but the medical establishment -- not exactly a squeamish bunch -- found his research interests somewhat alarming. He invented a killing machine he called the "Thanatron" and used it on his subjects -- most of them terminally sick, a few not -- until his license was revoked and he ran out of access to liquid poisons. At that point he started having people gas themselves instead via his "Mercitron." Smith believes that Kevorkian's eventual turn to assisting some 130 suicides was a default calling of sorts - something he turned to only when he was unable to gain access to what he really wanted. Those were the corpses of condemned prisoners - or perhaps we should make that "pre-corpses"; young Dr. Kevorkian proposed keeping them somewhat alive, near death, for purposes of medical experimentation.

    What makes the HBO movie even more surreal is that Wesley Smith is hardly the only observer to have called out the ghoulish truth about Dr. Death over the years. Kevorkian's own record of public statements is such that Nancy Gibbs of Time once observed in a cover story that "Every time he speaks or writes he hands them [his critics] ammunition to dismiss him as a psychopath." Then there are the doctor's many grandstanding interviews and stunts in practically every corner of America where a camera could be found. If we don't know Jack after everything he's told us - and told us, and told us - then whom do we know?

    Apparently no one, if the portrayal by HBO and the preternaturally gifted Pacino is to be believed. Their Jack is a crotchety, well-meaning, card-playing, persecuted (by the religious right, of course) sometime flautist and all-around aesthete ("Bach is my god"). In better news and to its credit, the movie does emphasize that Kevorkian is, of course, an atheist. I say "of course" because only a self-declared atheist could likely have gotten away with what Kevorkian did for as long as he did; no believer could have possibly have wrapped himself in the flag of supposed religious persecution as he and his lawyer managed for many years.

    All of which may provide a key to understanding the enthusiasm for this project. Atheism in Hollywood today - like defending Roman Polanski a few months ago, or having movie stars wear reading glasses a few years before that - is a hot commodity. That may be why the same Tinseltown that shuns Mel Gibson now ostentatiously overlooks, for example, Kevorkian's statement that "So the Holocaust doesn't interest me, see? They've had a lot of publicity, but they didn't suffer as much [as the Armenians]." It may also be why Hollywood ignores other aspects of the Kevorkian story that it wouldn't ordinarily overlook, too - like the time his lawyer, Geoffrey Feiger, told the Detroit News that Orthodox Jews "are closer to Nazis than they think they are" because certain rabbis resisted the doctor's death work.

    Suffering and death do indeed come for us all, and the suffering of those we love is the most crushing blow many mortals ever know. But those human facts never have, and still do not, make it right for the death-intoxicated voyeurs among us to exploit them. The National Hospice and Palliative Care Organization, which has brought help to millions of the dying, shuns Kevorkian and shuns physician assisted suicide -- as should we all.

    As for what HBO does to top this, here's a thought: Danny Huston, the very winning actor who plays Kevorkian's sidekick lawyer Feiger, deserves a lead of his own - say, as that misunderstood victim of eating disorders, Jeffrey Dahmer. Baby, get me rewrite.

    Mary Eberstadt is a research fellow at the Hoover Institution, contributing writer to First Things and contributing editor to Policy Review, and editor of the new black comedy, The Loser Letters: A Comic Tale of Life, Death, and Atheism.