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.