You Don't Know Jack is a jokey, crap title for a genuinely great movie--one of the year's best, as a matter of fact. That director Barry Levinson and star Al Pacino apparently have to go to pay cable (it originally aired on HBO) to make a film of this quality is a sad commentary on the state of mainstream moviemaking; nothing either of them has put out theatrically in the past decade can even approach it. This is intelligent, professional filmmaking of the highest order.
The film is a biopic of Dr. Jack Kevorkian, with a specific focus on his activites in the 1990s as an advocate and administrator of physician-assisted suicides for terminal patients. "Dr. Death" is played by Pacino, and the resemblance is uncanny--both in his physical appearance and speaking voice, all rounded Midwestern tones ("Just sooo ya knooow..."). Pacino eagerly digs into the complexities of this stubborn, committed, fiercely controversial figure, and his total immersion into the character is startling; the last time he was this good was, well, the last time he was on HBO, playing Roy Cohn in Angels in America. Whether it's awareness of the caricature he so often became in his 1990s work, or an extra burden of responsibility when playing real people, he's clearly curbing his excesses. That's not to say that he still isn't capable of the electricity that makes him who he is. But when, for example, he thunders away at the district attorney, it's in character, and that's much more powerful than just watching a great actor show off.
Adam Mazer's taut script doesn't softball or even stray from the thorniness of the central issues (the right to die is a debate that continues to divide), but the film doesn't get lost in them, either. Nor is it all solemn proselytizing--director Levinson (Rain Man, Good Morning Vietnam), a master of low-key wit, keeps the action lively while wisely keying in on the human comedy of Kevorkian's personal relationships. There are a lot of laughs in this very serious film, whether supplied by Pacino ("Let him arrest me, I don't care," says the retired doctor of the religious D.A. "I'm not a busy man, you know!") or the gifted ensemble surrounding him. John Goodman, as his friend and frequent assistant, is quietly, modestly, very good--funny and earthy, and drawing on the two actors' shared history (they appeared together in Pacino's comeback picture, Sea of Love, clear back in 1989). As sister Margo Janus, Brenda Vaccaro roars through the picture as a personified force of life, an easy but effective contrast to Kevorkian's force of death. Susan Sarandon is more subtle but no less engaging as his friend and fellow advocate Janet Good; her push, in her final scenes, to find the emotional truth between them (and inside him) is of particular note. Danny Huston is stuck with a terrible wig, but is otherwise commendable as Kevorkian's showboating lawyer Geoffrey Fieger.
Levinson isn't afraid of the material, though; the recreations of those videotaped interviews with the patients play like documentary, each a one-scene performance that is just heart-wrenching. This is serious, scary stuff; the death of "patient #1" is a tough, poignant, powerful scene, while the double-suicide of "patient #2" and "patient #3" is like a master class in how to use every element--cinematography, score, brilliant acting, sharp dialogue, and emotional resonance--to building a perfect sequence.
The script's shift to courtroom drama in the final half hour was, it seems, necessitated by the actual events, but it still plays as a sop to the formulaic, like an admirably complicated film that has until then dodged the familiar biopic tropes settling into a more standard playbook. But even in those less-daring closing scenes, Levinson doesn't step thematically wrong--the film may get more predictable, but it doesn't sacrifice its intelligence, or its sense of urgency.
Through much of the picture, the color palate is muted and slightly aged--but it gives the film a grounded, almost documentary-style feel, particularly in the thick and atmospheric flashes of grainy black and white. The cinematography by Eigil Bryld (In Bruges) is effectively moody throughout; he makes painterly use of shadow and light at several points, particularly in an evocative night driving scene (black levels are full and rich). Detail work is also very good (the tight close-ups during the first assisted suicide are well-rendered). A solid transfer overall.
The English 5.1 track is likewise impressive, resisting the front-and-center tendencies of the dialogue-driven drama with well-placed but subtle surround use (you can barely pick up the distant James Taylor music playing in the background at Fieger's apartment, or the soft echo of the courtroom speeches, but they're there) and the beautifully modulated score by Marcelo Zarvos (Brooklyn's Finest).
French 5.1 and Spanish 2.0 tracks are also available, as are English, French, and Spanish subtitles.
Disappointingly, there's only one extra, the short "The Real Jack/Inner Circle" (10:15) featurette, a tightly-cut and none-too-penetrating promo piece. That said, the interviews with the real people involved are invaluable, choppy thought they may be. But Levinson's exclusion (both from the piece and from the special features in general--he's done plenty of audio commentaries) is puzzling, and considering the wealth of Kevorkian material that's out there, it seems like there should have been more available for inclusion here.
Though unabashedly sympathetic to its subject and agreeably opinionated on his central cause, You Don't Know Jack is not a simple film--that wouldn't do justice to Kevorkian or what he stood for. But it's not some kind of issue-driven, mouth-piecing, "liberal Hollywood" dirge either. It is a prickly, messy, fast-paced, brutally smart, emotionally exhausting piece of work. No wonder they had to go to HBO to make it.
Jason lives with his wife Rebekah and their daughter Lucy in New York. He holds an MA in Cultural Reporting and Criticism from NYU. He is film editor for Flavorwire and is a contributor to Salon, the Atlantic, and several other publications. His first book, Pulp Fiction: The Complete History of Quentin Tarantino's Masterpiece, was released last fall by Voyageur Press. He blogs at Fourth Row Center and is yet another critic with a Twitter feed.