Careers in Hollywood are not unlike ocean tides. If you're in the business long enough it's inevitable that the ebb and flow of the system is going to result in measurable highs and lows. And if, for whatever reason, the heavens remain unaligned for back-to-back low-tide films, people begin to assume a pattern is at play. So it's understandable that You Don't Know Jack is an easy film to be wary of. It's a made for TV movie (HBO, despite their one-time motto of "It's not TV.", is indeed still TV) directed by Barry Levinson, a director whose once-wonderful career has been marred of late by a few true stinkers. And it stars Al Pacino, a man whose performances of late have seemingly become impersonations of Al Pacino impersonations, as America's most controversial proponent of assisted suicide, Dr. Jack Kevorkian.
Yet even with all those potential portents of an incoming low tide, You Don't Know Jack is a surging triumph for all involved. This isn't Man of the Year or Envy Barry Levinson, this is Good Morning, Vietnam and Rain Man Levinson. This isn't Righteous Kill or 88 Minutes Pacino, either. In fact, predictable Pacino is entirely absent here, leaving room in its wake for a career high performance that is barely recognizable as the loose cannon presence that audiences have come to expect from the star. And despite its extremely sensitive subject matter, Breach screenwriter Adam Mazer's script is a markedly objective look at the divisive medical figure.
Levinson and Mazer's goal is not to pass judgment one way or another on Kevorkian's belief that terminally ill people should have the right to chose how they exit this world -- nor is it to craft a chronological biopic about the doctor's life. No, the mission here is to pull back the curtain on a name we all know and then illuminate the man behind it; to show how he lived his life and who he lived it with. And while Pacino's profound disappearance into the role is certainly the most remarkable element of You Don't Know Jack, he's hardly the only actor giving it their all. John Goodman, Danny Huston, James Urbaniak and Susan Sarandon are all fine contributors to Levinson's great cast, but Brenda Vaccaro is marvelous as Margo Janus, Kevorkian's brave and indomitably tolerant sister.
There are a few moments where the tone of the film threatens to become a tad too overbearing. It's difficult to watch what are essentially re-enactments of Kevorkian's recorded sessions with his patients, but that's to be expected. It would be disingenuous to shirk the real world implications of the troubling subject matter in favor of a less depressing film experience, so it's hardly a complaint that a film about an inherently sad issue is, well, often quite sad. Levinson and company do their best, however, to inject appropriate levels of levity at regular intervals to shield You Don't Know Jack from becoming the joyless film it may have been in less balanced hands; or, inversely, the dark comedy it could have been in another's.
Instead You Don't Know Jack does an admirable job of walking strictly in Kevorkian's strange but fascinating shoes. Unsurprisingly, by film's end the audience should, if nothing else, feel that they know far more about the mindset and motivations of the doctor than they've been given from superficial media reports that opt for cheap nicknames like "Dr. Death" over even attempting to paint a compelling portrait of the man behind the name.