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Film Review: You Don’t Know Jack

1 August, 2010

This is a telefilm that aired on HBO, and is now available on HBO On Demand. It comes out on DVD on 26 October, 2010. You can pre-order it here.

If you live in the United States and were old enough to read the news in the 90s, then chances are that you know who Jack Kevorkian is. For those of you who don’t, a short introduction: Dr Kevorkian is one of the world’s most vocal activists in favour of euthanasia; he practised physician-assisted suicide in Michigan during the 1990s before an escalating series of events ended in him being imprisoned for eight years. You Don’t Know Jack follows his life from the beginnings of his campaign and rise to the national stage to his eventual conviction.

Every film that dramatises a real-life story brings up questions of  bias towards or against the people and issues it documents. This is particularly the case here, what with the huge controversy surrounding Dr Kevorkian’s actions. You Don’t Know Jack presents a biased view – but there’s nothing wrong with that. It’s a film about Dr Kevorkian’s life, and it takes a look at its subject from his perspective. The film presents the man through his public actions and his interactions with the handful of people who were a part of his personal life, and it does so in a balanced manner. The film doesn’t make judgements about the man, nor does advocate Dr Kevorkian’s views – but being a film about Dr Kevorkian, it presents the views that were so integral to his life. Is this film biased? Yes. Unfairly? Not at all.

The driving force behind You Don’t Know Jack is its performances. Al Pacino immerses himself in the role of Kevorkian completely, becoming him in the way he speaks, the way he walks, and the erratic passion he displays. Rather than merely imitating one image Kevorkian, he shows Kevorkian as a man who grows and changes over time. The low-key nature of the film, especially in its first half, allows the actors time and space to slowly embody their characters. The resulting power and force of their performances give this story’s emotional core a great authenticity.

This is a film that expresses the opinion of a man by examining his life unflinchingly and wholeheartedly. Its tone is complex and layered, as any one person’s life is. It never lets itself slip into the common biopic schtick of trying to focus solely on one emotional aspect of their subject, which inevitably shows them as caricatures, undermining the point of the whole exercise. You Don’t Know Jack is a gripping tale, and an important one. It brings with it the full emotion of one man’s personal journey, and the incredibly pertinent issue he fought for. In other words, this is essential viewing.

9/10

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